Sir Anthony McCoy struggled to overcome his emotions when paying tribute to Pat Smullen, who died at the age of 43 on Tuesday.
Smullen was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in March 2018, with his death coming exactly a year after the nine-times champion Irish Flat jockey persuaded McCoy to come out of retirement to ride in a charity race at the Curragh.
“He was a wonderful man. It’s very hard, it’s very hard on the family. It’s just a tragic time, it’s heartbreaking,” McCoy told Sky Sports Racing.
“We served our apprenticeships around a similar time. His was a lot more successful than mine was, so I’d known him a long time.
“Paying a compliment to him as a rider, he took over from as good a rider as I have ever seen in Mick Kinane (at Dermot Weld’s) and you wouldn’t have known. That is how good Pat Smullen was. You can try to think about races he maybe should have won – there aren’t any.
“It’s just horrifically sad. I spent a long time crying last night.”
Smullen convinced McCoy to take part in the Pat Smullen Champions Race For Cancer Trials in Ireland last September, and he rose to the task when making all the running on Quizical at the Curragh.
The 20-times champion jumps jockey beat other legends of the turf such as Ruby Walsh and Johnny Murtagh, on a day that helped Smullen raise over €2.5million for charity.
“It was very special,” said McCoy.
“I know he said that some of us were harder to persuade to ride than others, and it did take me a bit of time to think about it because I was a bit unfit at the time and worried about making a show of myself.
“But because it was for Pat Smullen and for such a special cause – there is no doubt it is one of the memories that will last forever in my mind. The Curragh was very special because of how the day went, the success and what he made of it. He raised the best part of three million in a very short space of time.
“It was a very memorable day and I know that he, having organised that, will have made a difference to people. It was a very special day.
“He served his apprenticeship riding against Mick Kinane and Christy Roche. He rode with the best of them and learnt from the best. It showed what a world-class jockey he became.
“I looked at a picture this morning of a lunch in Leopardstown in February 2018. It was not long after that he was diagnosed with cancer.”
Quizical’s trainer Sheila Lavery is also finding it hard to come with the news of Smullen’s death.
“It’s just so sad and is too hard to put into words really,” she said.
“That was an amazing day at the Curragh and we all said at the time it was pure testament to Pat. It’s just devastating. We are all heartbroken. It’s pure despair that he was taken so young. I just can’t just begin to imagine what his family are feeling. It’s so heartbreaking.
“I think there were very few people Pat didn’t touch in some way.
“He was just one of those who treated everyone exactly the same way – the stable hands, or the owner, the trainer, everyone. He was just a really decent person.”
Mick Kinane hailed a “top-class professional and top-class man” as he paid tribute to his long-time weighing-room colleague.
“He was a gentleman. He came to Dermot’s, things moved on and he took over my job and did a fantastic job for a long time,” said Kinane.
“He was a top-class professional and a top-class man. We had some great tussles and we had some good times. Unfortunately he couldn’t win his last battle, but he tried so hard.”
One of Smullen’s keenest rivals throughout his career was Johnny Murtagh, who is now a successful trainer – and as recently as Saturday Smullen was still in touch with his old friend.
“The racing world mourns a true legend,” said Murtagh.
“I had a big winner on Saturday (Champers Elysees in the Matron Stakes) and one of the first messages I had was from Pat saying ‘well done, Johnny, brilliant win’ so he was showing class right up to the end.
“He set the standard in the weighing room in Ireland, everyone wanted to be like him – he was the champion jockey in Ireland in more ways than one.
“He leaves some legacy. We knew all about him in racing, but it wasn’t until he retired the wider community got to see what he was like, raising all that money for cancer research and pulling so many people together for his charity race last year.
“In and out of the saddle he was just a really great guy and my thoughts and now with Frances (wife) and the kids and his mam, all his family. It will be a tough few days, but we look on his life and career with very fond memories.”
Dermot Weld highlighted Smullen’s loyalty and integrity in paying tribute to the man who was his stable jockey for the best part of 20 years.
The pair enjoyed untold success all over the world, winning the 2016 Derby at Epsom with Harzand, teaming up for several major Royal Ascot winners and having several fruitful trips to America.
“Pat Smullen was just a very, very special man, with regards to the sport of horse racing and indeed to me personally. He was unique,” said Weld, speaking on Nick Luck’s Daily Podcast.
“In this day and age I would have to say his loyalty and his integrity stood out. He was my stable jockey for 20 years and was just the professionals’ professional.
“His detail and his determination were major factors, as was his bravery. He was a very principled man, he was a family man and his loyalty and integrity were an example to anybody within the sport.
“I only had two retained jockeys, Michael Kinane for about 13 years and Pat for about 20. We just built together, but he was simply an excellent jockey.”
Highlighting some of their biggest successes together Weld went on: “You saw in England wonderful rides like on Rite Of Passage, two spectacular rides at Ascot.
“It is worth noting, from the limited chances he got at Ascot, rides like winning the Gold Cup on Rite Of Passage when he set the track record, Fascinating Rock in the Champion Stakes, Free Eagle in the Prince of Wales’s and on a horse called In Time’s Eye when he got the better of a great duel with Pat Eddery going way back to the early days (Wolferton, 2003).
“He won the English 2000 Guineas on Refuse To Bend and I think that typified the man. Right to the end when he was fighting pancreatic cancer he had this will to win, this belief, determination and he was able to impart that to the horses he rode.
“After he won the Epsom Derby (on Harzand in 2016) – and he so deserved to ride the winner of an Epsom Derby – the amount of public support, I can even use the word love at his achievement, was amazing. People not even connected to the sport sent him congratulations.
“It was the same right around the world. He won the Matriarch Stakes (Dress To Thrill 2002) one day for me and the respect the American jockeys had for him was very special. He was a leader in his own profession.
“He led by example, I think that is the best way I can describe him.”
Pat Downes, general manager at the Aga Khan’s Irish studs, said: “It’s very sad news. We had some great days. Obviously Harzand’s two Derbys were the highlight.
“A great jockey, but also a great person and he battled hard for the last two years.
“It’s a terrible loss to his family – Frances, and (children) Hannah, Paddy and Sarah, and it’s just so sad, but I think in time we can all look back and feel lucky we have known him. He was a really great person.”
Newmarket trainer Hugo Palmer will always be grateful for his association with Smullen.
The pair teamed up for a number of big-race victories – most significantly with Covert Love in the Irish Oaks at the Curragh in 2015, as Smullen and the filly gave Palmer his first Classic success.
Palmer said: “I’m hugely saddened by the news that Pat has died. A finer jockey or finer man is impossible to imagine really.
“He was always a star to work with before and after a race, and was invariably brilliant in a race. He rode some great winners for me early on in my career.
“Short Squeeze and Gifted Master were two of the key ones, but his efforts aboard Covert Love in both the Irish Oaks, which was our first Classic, and in the Prix de l’Opera, which was a thrilling victory and an extraordinary ride, were things that I will remember forever.
“I’m just incredibly grateful not only for what Pat did for me and my career, but also to have known him. My heartfelt sympathy to his wife Frances and their three children.”
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