16 September 2020

Kieren Fallon looks back fondly on Derby days with Pat Smullen

16 September 2020

Kieren Fallon has spoken fondly of his memories of riding alongside nine-times Irish champion jockey Pat Smullen.

The Classic-winning rider was among a number of past and present British champion jockeys to reminisce about some of the great moments shared with the 43-year-old, whose death from pancreatic cancer has rocked the racing world.

Though the pair rode together in numerous races at the top level throughout their glittering careers, it is the aftermath of Smullen’s 2016 Derby triumph at Epsom aboard the Dermot Weld-trained Harzand that Fallon vividly remembers.

Smullen on Grey Swallow (right) saw off Fallon on North Light (PA Archive)

Fallon said: “He was a really nice guy, a very dedicated family man and what more can you say.

“I just want to remember him winning the Derby on Harzand at Epsom. Everyone was saying beforehand he is a lovely guy, but they were looking for something different – I said to one of the press boys ‘he loves his tractors, so write about that’.

“I remember going in the weighing room the next day, we were together and he had that cheeky smile on his face shaking his head at me – I can still him now shaking his head and smiling at me!”

He was a very good judge and you don’t get to the top of your game without being a good judge

Having fought out plenty of finishes while rivals on track, it was the defeat Smullen, who was diagnosed with his illness in March 2018, inflicted on Fallon aboard North Light in the 2004 Irish Derby the six-times champion will best remember him for.

He added: “I was on North Light bidding to do the English-Irish Derby double and I thought I was a certainty. But Pat had other ideas and beat me on Grey Swallow. He was a very good judge and you don’t get to the top of your game without being a good judge.

“He wouldn’t give you an inch in a race, but that is what made him so good and a nine-times champion jockey. He was strong in the finish and he really did have all the attributes.”

Pat Smullen with Kieren Fallon (far right) and the other legends ahead of his charity race (PA Archive)

While Smullen was denied a comeback ride in the Pat Smullen Champions Race For Cancer Trials Ireland at the Curragh last September following a relapse, Fallon is in no doubt his career would have continued for years to come given the chance.

He said: “He knew what he had was not easily fixed and whereas most of us, like myself, would have laid down feeling sorry, he got out there and really fought it.

“You would have not thought there was anything wrong with him that day at the Curragh for his charity race, as he was buzzing around as he wanted to be involved.

“He was so dedicated as he didn’t smoke and would only have the odd beer. I was hard on myself and I went (on riding) into my 50s, as did Lester Piggott, and I know he would have gone on for a lot longer if he could.”

Frankie Dettori hailed Smullen as a “great man and a complete gentleman”, having competed against him across the globe for more than two decades.

He said: “I’d travelled the world for 20 years with Pat and he was a great friend that fought until the end. It is always a shock when you get the news.

“I texted him about 10 days ago and he said he was not good and that he was back in hospital. It is such a shame as he leaves behind his wife and three children.

“He was a great man, not just with the horses, but with the way he conducted himself throughout the whole of this illness. He was a complete gentleman in every way.”

At the end of the day, he was just a great mate

Dettori, like Fallon, selected a race in which Smullen got the better of him as a contest that typified his talents in the saddle.

He said: “The one race that really stands out for me was when he beat me in the Prix de l’Opera. He was riding Covert Love and I was on Jazzi Top and he beat me by a head. I don’t think there was much discussion after the race, but it just showed what a professional he was.

“He was a nine-times champion jockey and is an example for any young rider to follow. No one had a bad word to say about him. At the end of the day, he was just a great mate.”

Jamie Spencer hailed Smullen's long relationship with Dermot Weld (PA Archive)

Jamie Spencer was another to praise Smullen’s character both in and out of the saddle.

He said: “Our careers were parallel to each other and I’ve known him my whole professional career. I’m very saddened to hear of his passing and my thoughts go out to his family.

“In the saddle he was a great competitor. He was a very tough, but extremely fair rider and he would always do the right thing.

“He worked for Dermot Weld for two decades and that showed his loyalty. He was Mr Dependable off the track, as you saw what he did with his charity work while battling this illness.

“A lot of Flat racing involves travelling and you would have to spend a long time flying to hear anybody have a bad word to say about Pat.”

Free Eagle was a Royal Ascot winner for Smullen (PA Archive)

Every rider has their own recollection of Smullen at his best – and Spencer is no different, highlighting his ride aboard Free Eagle in the 2015 Prince of Wales’s Stakes at Royal Ascot as one of his finest achievements.

He said: “I suppose the one that stands out for me is when he beat me on The Grey Gatsby in the Prince of Wales’s Stakes. It was a typical no-nonsense ride. He controlled the race and won by a short head and it is a race I will always remember.”

Reigning British champion Oisin Murphy was another to hail Smullen’s talents in the saddle and commended his impeccable attitude towards up-and-coming riders.

He said: “Pat was an incredible rider and a brilliant tactician. He enjoyed so much success across the world, and he was such a popular rider all over the world.

“As a jockey he was a very good rider and a gentleman, while he was very good with young riders. I feel for his family at what is a tough time. He had so many friends and it was a pleasure to know him.

Smullen claimed Derby gold aboard Harzand (PA Wire)

“His rides aboard Free Eagle in the Prince of Wales’s Stakes and Fascinating Rock in the Champion Stakes were both incredible.

“There are two moments I would really like to touch on. I won a Listed race on Search For A Song at York last year for Dermot Weld and that was a really emotional win as I’d spoken to Pat before the ride. That was very special and that is a memory that will live forever.

“The other is Pat winning the Derby on Harzand. It was an incredibly good tactical ride – it is every jockey’s dream to win the Epsom Derby and I’m delighted that Pat was able to achieve that.”

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