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Saturday, 15 December, 2018

Life has thrown a curveball at Smullen but few are better equipped to prevail

Pat Smullen celebrates after winning the Irish Derby on Harzand
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As the Flat season dawns, it’s hard to comprehend a more perturbing development than that which has befallen Pat Smullen.

Last year, the brilliant nine-time champion jockey was reminded of the inalienable truth that no-one is entitled to anything in this game, foiled as he was in the championship after an epic tussle with Colin Keane.

A totemic champion of Smullen’s stature commands a certain authority and is respected all around the world for his skill, renowned also as the professionals’ professional.

Nonetheless, 2017 proved that, regardless of any status you might have earned for yourself, you still have to go out there and see off the next big thing. That’s the way of life.

Harsh reality

In recent days, Smullen, his family and friends and the broader racing community have been hit with an even harsher reality – that none of us is immune from the vagaries of physiological turmoil.

The 40-year-old father-of-three is a fit sportsman at the peak of his powers, a clean-living grafter who has been busy getting on with the business of being Pat Smullen. Basically, being damn near bulletproof.

However, life, as it were, has blindsided him, the discovery of a tumour proving once again how a universe we often perceive as being defined by some sort of discernible order is ultimately random and indiscriminate.

Smullen is someone who has always done his bit for that reassuring feeling of rational understanding that we all strive for to make sense of the chaos. He has been an enduring staple of planet racing, a reliable beacon of talent, endeavour and resilience.

A steady hand, he is the very embodiment of that comforting perception that you reap what you sow in life, that those lucky enough to be born with a rare ability who are willing to knuckle down and work hard will be rewarded. A real role model.

There is always something inherently reassuring in knowing what to expect from a person, and that familiarity we like to think we have with Smullen is also the source of deepest encouragement that he will prevail in his latest battle.

Competitive streak

For beyond the cool exterior, he is epitomised in the first place by a fiercely competitive streak, a redoubtable spirit that is synonymous with the sport's greatest champions. In his own unassuming way, he is a natural-born fighter who simply will not lie down.

That is the single most important attribute required in these gruelling encounters, so there is no one better equipped for this struggle. We wish him and his family well on the journey ahead, and hope that in this instance the perceptible qualities we ascribe to him will triumph over the more arbitrary nature of things.

Worrying point-to-point developments a warning for jumps scene

Before it even begins, Fairyhouse's Easter festival has been the subject of much discussion because of the apparent lack of variety among the big-race entries.

Of the 15 possibles for the Ryanair Gold Cup, an aggregate 13 are trained by Willie Mullins and Gordon Elliott, and the title-chasing behemoths are responsible for 18 of the top 30 in the handicap for Monday’s €500,000 BoyleSports Irish Grand National.

Our Duke and Robbie Power win last year's Irish Grand National
Elliott claimed the new record for the number of wins in an Irish jump season when Poormans Hill took him to 194 on Sunday, and both he and Mullins are sure to each saddle upwards of 200 apiece.

That is a startling illustration of the sheer scale of their domination right now, and we’ve frequently observed how the manner in which things have evolved on the jumps scene has seen participation levels collapse.

Likewise, we’ve documented how the point-to-point sphere is suffering in a parallel fashion, the huge sales figures and success of the most commercial operations serving to disguise the rot that has set in at the grassroots.

Those responsible for the long-term health and sustainability of jump racing in Ireland would do well to observe how this season the blight of walkovers has returned to point-to-pointing, and last weekend threw up some further worrying incidents.

At separate venues, three maiden races, two of which were the choice 'four-year-olds only' category that drive the lucrative sales, each resulted in just a solitary finisher.

Two paltry fields of four and one of six set out, and only one of the three venues featured the word ‘heavy’ in the official going description, so conditions can’t be put forward with any real conviction as a mitigating factor.

Ultimately, what is happening is that fewer and fewer trainers are now able to compete for the raw material, as a handful of big players drive up prices. The incentive is no longer there for mid-rank operators as a sense of futility exists, so, for all that it is clearly an uber-competitive environment, levels of actual competition are falling off a cliff.

As last weekend’s results highlight in pretty stark terms, that is just as precarious a situation for the major operations as it is for everyone else, because the value of the end product will inevitably be compromised.

Worse still, the very existence and viability of the sport as we know it is being threatened. Food for thought.

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Smullen is someone who has always done his bit for that reassuring sense of rational understanding that we all strive for to make sense of the chaos
E.W. Terms
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