PAT Smullen was laid to rest yesterday following a moving funeral Mass in his hometown of Rhode, Co Offaly. Representatives of the President and Taoiseach were in attendance and the President’s aide de camp Col Stephen Howard gave Pat’s family a personal message from President Higgins.
Members of Rhode GAA club formed a guard of honour outside the church and Pat’s coffin was draped in saddle cloths from his Derby winners. The altar was decorated with flowers from Moyglare Stud Farm.
His eldest daughter Hannah gave a reading and her siblings Paddy and Sarah brought symbols of Pat’s life to the altar, including a riding helmet, saddle and souvenir coffee cup from last year’s charity raceday at the Curragh.
His wife Frances delivered the eulogy. “My heart is broken,” she said. “Broken for myself, for I have lost my best friend, my soulmate. Broken for Hannah, Paddy and Sarah, for they have lost not only their father, but also their friend and mentor. Broken for Mary, who has the unbearable pain of burying a son, 15 years after losing your beloved husband. I hope you can take comfort in knowing they are now reunited.”
Frances thanked all the medical professionals who took care of Pat during his illness. She acknowledged the tremendous outpouring of support and sympathy from neighbours, friends and the wider racing community.
The words courage and determination have been widely used to describe Pat, but his wife reminded the congregation that her husband was human. “Other words that could be used to describe him are insecure, scared, vulnerable and sad,” she said. “But he never gave up and my message [to those with personal struggles] is keep going, never give up. Don’t let this knock you.
“You always did your best, Pat. Always.”
The champion jockey passed away peacefully, surrounded by his family, on Tuesday evening in St Vincent’s Hospital, Dublin. He had battled pancreatic cancer for two and a half years and in that time his trademark inner strength saw him become an inspirational figure to many in racing and in Irish society.
At the top of his profession for almost all of his near 25-year career as a jockey, he was in his prime when struck by illness in early 2018. Although he survived aggressive treatment and major surgery, he was forced to retire in 2019, and instead he led a hugely successfully fundraising drive for cancer research.
In recent months his health deteriorated and on Tuesday his suffering ended. He was 43.
Based on the Curragh for virtually all his professional career, he was brought by hearse to the racecourse for the final time on Wednesday, to allow his many friends and former colleagues in the area to pay their respects.
Pat first made a name for himself in pony racing before going to ride out for trainer Joanna Morgan. After taking out his licence at 16, he was apprenticed to Co Offaly trainer Tom Lacy, for whom he rode his first winner in 1993.
He became champion apprentice twice and he began a 20-year association with trainer Dermot Weld in 1999.
Weld can take credit for moulding Pat into the champion he became, the first of nine titles coming in 2000. Big race wins flowed consistently. The crowning glory came in 2016 when Harzand completed the Epsom-Curragh Derby double for the Weld-Smullen partnership.
Pat remained focused on either retaining or reclaiming the jockeys’ title until the very the end of his career. He battled with Colin Keane for the championship right to the last day of the 2017 season. Later he would reveal that he had been in some physical discomfort for much of that year but couldn’t identify the problem and so continued working hard while looking forward to the winter break. Then, just days before the start of the 2018 flat season, Pat took ill with stomach pain. It was thought to be gallstones but a few days later news trickled through that it was more serious and that he would not be riding for the foreseeable future.
He had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, a condition which has a low recovery rate. However Smullen adopted a positive mindset and miraculously came through aggressive chemotherapy and major surgery. He began to go racing and rode out on the Curragh, and the possibility of him renewing his licence seemed very real.
In May 2019 he announced his retirement on doctor’s advice and instead he threw his energies into raising funds for cancer research.
Together with Horse Racing Ireland, he fronted a campaign which ultimately raised €2.5 million for Cancer Trials Ireland exactly one year ago.
The highlight was a Champions Race at the Curragh on Irish Champions Weekend, which featured nine retired champion jockeys and was won by A.P. McCoy. It was widely acknowledged as one of the greatest events in Irish racing for many years.
This year Pat has kept a lower profile at home with his family in Brickfield Stud, Edenderry, Co Offaly.
He went racing with friends in the spring before sport was suspended and kept in close contact with many of his friends in racing, including Moyglare Stud owner Eva Maria Bucher Haefner, who he says was always a great support to him in his professional career and during his illness.