Smullen in the saddle: six of the best rides from a master of his trade
CL Weld Park Stakes
The day started quietly for the young apprentice, no ride in the Derrinstown Apprentice Final won by Jamie Spencer, a spin on an outsider for veteran trainer Paddy Mullins. Then, a chance to play a supporting role for his boss in the Group 3 CL Weld Park Stakes.
When the youngster sent Token Gesture straight into the lead it was easy to assume the filly's job was to provide a proper gallop for Mick Kinane's mount Absolute Glee, who was well fancied for the 7f Group 3 contest after winning over a mile first time out in the O'Brien Cup at Tralee.
That was presumably in Kinane's mind too, but Smullen had other ideas. He settled down to work inside the last furlong and held his mount together in a tight finish involving Christy Roche on the Aidan O'Brien-trained Melleray, and his senior Rosewell House colleague. It was an early indication of the astute control of pace that would mark his career
The Irish Derby
In 2003 Smullen rode the Weld-trained two-year-old Grey Swallow to two wide-margin wins. The Daylami colt started his Classic season by winning a Guineas trial at Leopardstown before finishing third to Haafhd in the 2,000 Guineas and third to Bachelor Duke in the Irish equivalent.
When Weld stepped him up to a mile and a half for the first time in the Irish Derby he faced nine rivals, including the Derby winner North Light as well as the Epsom second, third and fourth.
After stalking the leaders Smullen was perfectly placed when Kieren Fallon sent the odds-on North Light to the front around two furlongs down, and he reacted quickly to cover the move. He asked Grey Swallow to quicken early in the final furlong and foiled North Light with a perfectly timed challenge.
Breeders' Cup Marathon
Santa Anita, 2008
Because of his career-long association with Weld, Smullen was never as active on the international stage as either Mick Kinane or Johnny Murtagh, the two major Irish-based figures with whom his career overlapped. However, he seldom squandered these relatively rare opportunities.
A case in point was his ride on the Ralph Beckett-trained Muhannak in the Breeders' Cup Marathon run over a mile and a half in its inaugural year on the Pro-Ride surface at Santa Anita.
Sensing the pace had been modest, Smullen brought Muhannak's stamina into play when bringing him four-wide to lead off the home turn. He drove his mount clear, getting a vital first run on local hope Church Service, brought from off the pace by Edgar Prado to finish a head second.
Rite Of Passage
Royal Ascot, 2010
''Not my finest hour, getting an Ascot Gold Cup winner beaten in a bumper," Smullen remarked with wry self-deprecation, giving a retrospective slant to Rite Of Passage's third behind the brilliant Dunguib at Cheltenham in 2009.
Just 15 months later, and on only his third start under rules on the Flat, Rite Of Passage won the Ascot showpiece under a terrific ride from Smullen.
Switching his mount to avoid being hampered by a weakening pace-setter over half a mile out, Smullen found himself with ground to make up when Johnny Murtagh went a few lengths clear on Age Of Aquarius. Smullen rode vigorously to narrow the gap, got to the front early in the final furlong and kept Rite Of Passage on an even keel to win by a neck in a course record.
Sense Of Purpose
When one recalls the details of a great riding career inevitably the really big occasions stand out. This subjective list reflects such a perspective, but any summary of Smullen's career needs to acknowledge his consistency, the same professionalism, craft, discipline and effort, day-in day-out, for more than 20 seasons.
As a more or less random example of this aspect, one could reference his ride on Galileo filly Sense Of Purpose in the 1m6f Listed Challenge Stakes at Leopardstown eight summers ago. Taking on several higher-rated rivals the filly beat the favourite Bob Le Beau by a neck, with the help of a beautifully orchestrated front-running ride involving a gradual and sustained raising of the tempo from off the home turn. When the filly returned to Leopardstown for the 1m4f Group 3 Ballyroan Stakes on her next start she triumphed under a carbon-copy ride, understated yet purposeful, just like the man himself.
By the time of the 237th Derby, Irish trainers had enjoyed an unprecedented spell of success in the race, responsible for eight of the past 16 winners, comprising five for Aidan O'Brien, two for John Oxx and one for Jim Bolger. Dermot Weld knew this was a race he needed to win to set the seal on his career.
Now he had his best-ever opportunity, with the Aga Khan-owned Harzand, a son of 2009 winner Sea The Stars. The stakes were high for Smullen. Adding to the sense of pressure, Harzand had a touch-and-go scare with an injured foot on the morning of the race before Weld gave the Ballysax Stakes winner the go-ahead to line up in a 16-runner field.
Eighth into the straight, Smullen brought Harzand with a sustained challenge up the unforgiving Epsom straight. A furlong out he overhauled Idaho, one of five O'Brien-trained runners before repelling the challenge of the Ballydoyle-trained favourite US Army Ranger. It was a perfect illustration of his jockey's composure and big-race temperament.
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