Frances Crowley: 'We still feel Pat's here and that's been a big help'
Frances Crowley meets David Jennings to chat about her legendary husband
On the first anniversary of Pat Smullen's death, we've republished this touching interview with his wife Frances Crowley from June 2021, when it was originally published for Members' Club Ultimate subscribers. To read more great articles from our award-winning team of journalists, join Members' Club Ultimate here.
There is a warmth to Frances Crowley, a glow which instantly makes you feel comfortable in her company. "Coffee?" "I can do you a cappuccino, if you like?" The pre-chat jitters dissolved before any foam touches the lips as we shoot the breeze in the kitchen of her fabulous County Offaly home along with Fiona Craig of Moyglare Stud who has come to visit for a few days.
The jitters, of course, are due to Crowley losing her soulmate last September but, as we move outside to the patio and bask in glorious late-June sunshine, it doesn't take long to realise that talking about that soulmate is something she loves doing. She's measured and contemplative as she relives some memories with me, not angry or resentful, even if she has every reason to be.
Pat Smullen was taken from her far too early, aged just 43, but she is not at war with the world or cursing the hand she has been dealt. "That would be a waste of energy, wouldn't it?" she counters. "We feel he's here. That's been a big help. We feel a lot of peace. The minute he died, that's the feeling we all got.
"This is very obscure and you might think I'm crazy, but the night Pat died we came home from the hospital and Sarah [their daughter] was sleeping in my bed with me, fluttering above the bed were two butterflies, just circling above the bed. I knew I wasn't going to be able to sleep with them fluttering around so I got them out.
"Then Sarah called me another morning to tell me a butterfly had landed on her hand. We laid Pat out in what we call the good room in our house. There were two butterflies coming into the room and flying around the whole time. I eventually said to one of my sisters, 'what is it with all these butterflies?' She told me the butterfly is a symbol for the soul. And, when you Google it, every culture, Aztec, old Irish, every culture, the butterfly is a symbol for the soul and resurrection. I could tell you a million stories, I really could.
"The day before Christmas Eve, I remember dreading the thought of having to get all the presents out on my own. We used to hide the presents in Pat's sauna – a dark, pokey little place. Now, it's not that Pat would ever help me with the wrapping or the sourcing of any presents ever, but he did used to help me carry them over every Christmas Eve. That evening, I went to put something I had wrapped on the pile and there on the floor was a butterfly. That was two days before Christmas."
It is five years since Smullen won his second Irish Derby. It proved to be his final Group 1 win, something you would have laughed at had you been told it at the time. Harzand was hardy, and bravely fended off Idaho to complete the coveted Epsom-Irish Derby double. It was vintage Pat; always in the right place at the right time and strong in the finish.
"That really was a great day," recalls Frances. "He had won at Epsom and obviously the expectation was there that he might win again. I remember the Community Games were on in Tullamore the same day. Of course I had to go over there with the kids first, so we waved goodbye to Pat and off he went. We had some terrific days at the Curragh. We really had.
"Sarah was almost called Polly, you know? We were only in the house one week and Pat was heading over to the Curragh. He was all in his suit ready to go and I said 'best of luck now, Pat, I'm heading to the hospital.' I knew it was kicking off and I had to go. His brother brought me up and I had Sarah that evening. Pat won the Pretty Polly that day on Chinese White and made it up to me about half an hour before the birth. I always joke with Sarah and tell her she was nearly named Polly!
"The year Grey Swallow won, Hannah was just a baby. I remember running down the track carrying her in my arms. I just wanted to get to him to say 'well done' but the thing is I never got near him. I would never elbow my way into a situation like that or anything, I was just hoping he'd catch a glimpse of us.
"Looking back on it now, those years were all a bit of a blur. You wish you could have savoured things a bit more. But, you know, if you have small children you know what it's like. Every day just rolls into the next."
Those children are growing up fast. Sarah turned 11 yesterday [Saturday], Paddy is 14 and Hannah is now 18. She has just sat her Leaving Cert and is about to leave for a driving lesson [she passed her test the next day]. Just before she does, I ask her to describe her mother in four words.
"Resilient. Easy-going. Focused. Driven," she says, before joking: "Well, she's sitting beside us here so my hands are kind of tied!"
"I didn't hear 'good mother' in there anywhere?" laughs Frances.
The good mother part is a given; Hannah knows that. Frances was also a good trainer, a very good one. So good that at the age of just 32 she became the first woman to train an Irish Classic winner when Saoire won the Irish 1,000 Guineas in 2005.
"Was it a big decision [to stop training]? I suppose it was," she says. "I was thinking about it for a few years and it was kind of a relief then when I did. It was just too much on the two of us. Pat really needed somebody behind him. Pat always said that if he had been just a middle-of-the-road jockey we could have made a go of training together.
"But it's very difficult to do something like that on your own. Pat had to take himself out of it because the stress of both was too much. He had to concentrate on his own thing. Training was a tough thing to do on your own because if there were problems I would never tell Pat. He used to really let things get in on him, especially if something got injured.
"People asked me did I miss the buzz of it, but sure I was getting the buzz from Pat. I used to enjoy Pat winning a big race because you could really enjoy that with him. I think I was a help to him too.
"Even a top jockey doubts himself. Should I have done this or should I have done that? I'd try to be honest with him but I always had it in the back of my mind that confidence is such a big thing with jockeys. I understood that. It was really important for him to know that even if something went wrong that there was probably a reason for it. I would be good to read a race and we used to read a race very similarly. Like if we were watching a race together we would almost turn to each other at the same time and say the same thing."
Frances was incredibly proud of Pat.
"You were basking in a glow from him. People always loved to see him. He was a really eloquent speaker too. Any time he got up to say something he would never have anything written down. He would have just thought about what he was going to say. For instance, at the Cartier awards I remember all these educated people, some of them maybe even educated at Eton, saying a few words that they had written down. A few sentences were all they had to say but they had them written down. Pat, who left school at 14, got up and spoke for what must have been a few minutes, but had nothing written down. He had it all prepared in his head. He would have known what he wanted to say."
Pat was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in March 2018.
"You don't know how you're going to cope with something until it happens. I remember when John Shortt was sick, I used to look at his wife and wonder how she got up in the morning. How are they so positive? How do they do it? I could barely speak to them when I met them. I never knew what to say to them. I don't think we ever really visited John at his home because we didn't really know what to say. We just felt so overcome with emotion.
"I thought it was ironic when Pat got sick then. Now I knew. You're positive because you think everything is going to work out. I remember being at the Cartier awards when Pat was up there getting his award. I could see everybody was very emotional. They were all sitting there thinking 'Pat is going to die'. But I said to myself 'he's not going to die'. That was the way I thought. You think that everything is going to be okay, that’s the only way you can get through it.
"Obviously we had a great oncologist, and great doctors, but you feel like you have to try to do something yourself. Every time I'd read an article or look into something, the first thing that was always said about pancreatic cancer was basically that you are going to die. And, that only a very small percentage wouldn't. I used to tell Pat that he was always in that very small percentage of people who were able to do things that people couldn't so you're going to be in that percentage again this time. You're going to beat the odds. That was the attitude we always took.
"We had such a lovely time from about March to early June last year. The weather was lovely, we bought a little bit of land, a field we had spoken about buying for a long time, we were getting that ready. He had come off the chemotherapy because we could tell it was starting to become ineffective. We were looking towards the next thing, a new combination, and of course we were hopeful that it would work. There was that period of time when he was really well and the weather was lovely and we couldn't go anywhere. We were stuck here. The kids didn't have school either so we were all here and it was absolutely lovely."
She continues: "Pat was a bit unlucky in some ways. He could have had it caught a bit earlier which would have made all the difference. All the money he raised for Cancer Trials Ireland was amazing. The race at the Curragh was amazing, it was very emotional. I remember the second they passed the post in the race I just burst into tears. There was such goodwill for it.
"They are putting a lot of money into trials. There are things being explored the whole time. Genetics is going to be a huge thing in treatment. The genetic make-up of your cancer is the way they're going to look at it. You may have pancreatic cancer but they will take a biopsy and look at the whole genetic make-up of the cancer. It's a little pathway they will look at and be treating in future.
"I think people who are diagnosed with pancreatic cancer can't just think it's a death sentence. It used to be, but it's not anymore."
If you're like me, there is one burning question you want to ask. How is Frances herself doing?
"We're fine. We're doing good," she replies. "I did find Royal Ascot tough. That was always our little holiday together every year so by Friday I was a bit of a mess. I often find that if I have to keep myself controlled for a while, you fall in a hole at the end of it. But, no, we're good. We're good. The kids are great. They keep you busy. They make sure you're occupied and distracted.
"You do have days when you're not okay, but I find there's a lot happening. Last week we went to Ruby [Walsh] and Gillian's for a little get together for Royal Ascot, just like last year. Pat was with us last year and it was the last time people saw him. He was starting to not feel great, but he had a great day.
"Last Sunday I was getting lots of messages. Stuff like 'thinking of Pat today', 'thinking of you all today'. All that kind of stuff. I said to Fiona [Craig, her friend]: 'why on earth is everyone thinking of us today?' I had been busy and hadn't really had time to look at my phone or anything. I knew Father's Day was coming up but I tried to put it out of my mind. Hannah got up and she was upset. I couldn't understand what was wrong with her. She went off for a drive to get some sausage rolls for everyone for breakfast. She was gone for two hours and I was like 'where on earth is she getting these sausage rolls?' She eventually came home and I followed her up to her room and asked 'why are people texting me?' 'What is today?' She told me then and I said 'oh, God.' Because my dad [Joe Crowley] died in March as well.
"It's funny, though, on days like Father's Day I could be absolutely fine. It's days that are absolutely nothing when you could find yourself being a mess. It's just the way it is. I say a mess, but I would just be very sad and nobody would see me like that.
"I have brilliant friends and family. Pat's family and my own family –sure I have five sisters – have been great. Even though we've been living in a Covid world I have never felt alone."
And the future?
"I try not to think about the future. I try not to think about the past too much either. I just focus on the present. As regards the future, I obviously have the kids and a beautiful farm I would like to build up. That's Pat's legacy. I'd like to have a small band of broodmares and breed some nice racehorses. But I try not to think too far ahead."
Living in the present is working just fine for Frances Crowley. She's an inspiration to each and every one of us.
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