'It wasn't all about coming back to ride horses - it was just about coming back'
Richard Forristal speaks to top retired rider Pat Smullen about his cancer fight
Published in the Racing Post on May 19, 2019
There's a melancholy image seared in Frances Crowley's mind since April last year that still gives her the shivers.
The occasion was a Pony Club event in Clane, County Kildare. She was shooting the breeze with Gillian Walsh, and in front of them, just out of earshot, their respective husbands Pat Smullen and Ruby Walsh were watching the little ones do their thing.
The sun was shining and in different circumstances it might have been a serene moment to savour, two devoted wives and mothers of beautiful young families appreciating their good fortune in life.
It sounds wistful, except it wasn't the idyllic freeze-frame they'd have liked it to be. The moving picture was more subtly poignant.
"It was shortly after Ruby had broken his leg at Cheltenham," Crowley recalls somewhat mournfully in the soft lilt we used to be so accustomed to in her training days.
"He was there on the crutches beside Pat, and at the time I was blaming the stress of riding on what had happened to Pat, and Ruby looked wicked. I remember looking at them and thinking they were like the walking dead. I said to Gillian, 'What are they after doing to themselves?' I was just wondering, is it really worth it?"
It evokes an unfortunate memory of the climax from Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid when the two wounded old gunslingers sat defiantly plotting an outlandish exit strategy to Australia despite their hopeless predicament. At the time, both women could have been forgiven for dreading what was still to come.
They didn't want their heroes to go out in a blaze of glory, just for them to get home safe.
Walsh came out shooting again and rode off into the sunset with his pistols smoking, as only a cavalier jump jockey would. Smullen had to keep his guns in his holster.
Truth be told, his triumph was far more profound. Over the past 14 months he has won an altogether different battle.
Cancer of the pancreas remains one of the most resolute forms of the pervasive illness, but Smullen has prevailed.
Last Tuesday week he announced he wouldn't ride again, formally bringing the curtain down on a brilliant career that yielded nine jockeys' championships, 12 European Classics, eight Royal Ascot winners and more than 1,900 winners worldwide.
The romance of a Hollywood comeback and a grandstand finale tugged away at him, but reality bites. Eight months ago his abdomen had been cut open from side to side, and the sacrifices involved in getting back in fighting shape would have been a bridge too far.
"I would have loved to have the opportunity to do what Ruby did and go out after a big winner. That's the fairytale, but it wasn't to be," he concedes as he sits perched at the island station in the kitchen of his sumptuous home, itself perched on the banks of the Grand Canal in his native Rhode, County Offaly.
"Sometimes you'd get carried away and think to yourself you'd love another go. Then you realise why you aren't doing it and you say, 'Oh, that's why'. I was chatting to Ruby in the hospital one day after surgery and we had the discussion as to whether I would get back riding. I said to him, 'Sure, look at all the comebacks you've made'.
"He looked at me and said, 'Yeah, but I've never stared death in the face'. That really hit me right between the eyes, that it wasn't all about coming back to ride horses. It was just about coming back."
Next month, Smullen and Walsh will embark on a Royal Ascot jaunt with some of their closest friends to celebrate their recent landmarks.
The thought of having to sport a top hat and tails is anathema to the farm labourer's son who will turn 42 on Wednesday, but he accepts the days of sneaking in quietly in his civvies are gone.
"It will be an experience," he deadpans of the attire, "but we're all looking forward to it."
In October, his chemotherapy completed, Smullen had surgery to remove the shrunken tumour, an invasive process that requires the removal of organs to access the pancreas. "You then have to be re-plumbed," he explains.
The surgery went well, but the reintegrated piping ultimately played up. He underwent another major surgery a month later, spending six weeks in hospital all told.
The experience was "horrific", and at different removes we've all been in awe of the courage and openness he has shown despite the gruelling unseen assault on his body.
He felt a responsibility to be accessible and front up, shedding the detached, game face defence mechanism that defined his riding career. Still, he was always mindful of reality.
Frances is similarly pragmatic and cautioned against taking the platitudes too literally. She admired his attitude but didn't want him to be lured into a false sense of security.
After all, we are mere mortals at the whim of an indiscriminate cosmos.
"I sometimes don't like the talk about how brave and how well you fought, because things could not be going well for you and you could still be brave," she relays directly to her husband of 18 years.
"Pat was very brave and positive," she explains before remembering their late friend John Shortt, who sadly died in 2017 aged 53 after a long struggle with cancer.
"But I often think of John, and how brave he was, yet things didn't go right for him. John wasn't getting the positive news we were at different junctures. That's the same for a lot of people. You can fight it all you want but you might still not win the battle."
"That's the harsh truth," Pat agrees.
"The ball bounced in our favour every time. When the surgeons needed to do something, we got the rub of the green, and the treatment worked. In the back of your head, you're thinking, 'this has to work', and that is very daunting."
Smullen's time in the saddle spanned 26 years. He was champion apprentice in 1995 and 1996 and scaled the sport's most prestigious summit aboard Harzand for his staunch allies Dermot Weld and the Aga Khan in the 2016 Investec Derby at Epsom.
He was a gifted rider but also a model pro, and it is a testament to his work ethic that only Mick Kinane has more domestic Flat titles to his name.
Likewise, for all that something as intangible as spirit has its limitations, his refusal to be defeatist about the hand fate dealt him certainly won't have done him any harm; a pseudo endorphin effect, maybe.
Still, even he needed a catalyst to embrace such a valiant approach.
"It came from a nurse called Dee," he recalls of the days following his March diagnosis. "It was my first night in St Vincent's private hospital after moving over from the Beacon. Frances and my brothers had been in, and then they had all gone home.
"Dee came in and sat at the end of my bed. The first thing she said to me was, 'Do not, under any circumstances, google pancreatic cancer. Whatever is on the internet is out of date. We've moved on and are long way ahead of what google will tell you.' I never have googled it, to this day.
"The second thing she said was, 'We are on a path together, there is no looking back, it's all forward. We'll get through this'. For someone to come in, who I'd never met in my life, and sit down and talk about 'us' and 'we', it lifted me.
"I distinctly remember it. I actually went to sleep that night thinking I could beat this. It was probably the most important conversation I ever had in my life."
During an intense schedule of chemotherapy, their Brickfield Stud home proved a sanctuary.
"I just love being here," says Pat, and you are reminded of an anecdote David Walsh once wrote in The Sunday Times illustrating the yin and yang of Smullen and Kieren Fallon, who described his colleague as the jockey version of Aidan O'Brien.
"The person who gives his whole life to the job to the best of his ability," Fallon said. "No distractions. Great professionalism. I don't know how they do it. I've had my quirks. Pat has had his tractors."
Pat adds: "Other people play golf, but I love being here, rooting around, keeping the place tidy and improving things.
"The steroids used to play havoc with me during chemo, and my feet used to blow up and feel like they were about to explode.
"Last summer the weather was lovely, so I used to go out at about half-nine or ten o'clock at night and just walk the paddocks to calm everything down. It was the nicest thing on those summer evenings. I could just walk around the place and it would put my mind at ease.
"The days passed and I was so content here. We're both country people, and it goes back to why we got involved in racing in the first place – the love of horses. I've spoken about that before."
"It was the same when I was training," interjects the Classic-winning handler across the countertop.
"When you're doing the job and you have to make a living out of it, you lose sight of it. You weren't a very happy person before this happened to you, Pat. You were doing well and everything, but there was a lot of stress."
Inevitably, though, happiness can be an enemy of success, can't it?
"That's very much the case," Pat agrees. "Everything else came second to riding, and it was the same ten times over for Frances as a trainer. Now that's all done, I think we're happier than we've ever been.
"If I've one regret, it's that I didn't enjoy the good times more when they were happening, but that's the nature of it. Harzand's Derby win came at a great time in my career, because I was at an age when I was desperate to win the race, and the kids were able to appreciate it. It was the most enjoyable day of my career, but 48 hours later I was back preoccupied about how now this horse has to win the Irish Derby. It's been and gone, though.
"We had a great time of it and now the stress is gone from us. I know it's a cliche, but what happened has given me a new perspective on life."
That broader viewpoint has triggered selfless impulses in him that were long repressed when he was obsessed with his own ambition.
On Tuesday, he flew to Britain to walk the course at York with Abi Stock, a young girl who had reached out to him when her father was struck down with the same illness at the same time as him. He was just 54 and sadly died in September.
Smullen went to York out of solidarity ahead of Stock's participation in the Macmillan Cancer Race on June 15. "I just want to show her some support," he says.
He has designs on a fundraising initiative in aid of pancreatic cancer research, and is also drawn to less emotionally motivated causes. "We were in a very fortunate position financially," he explains.
"Racing has been very good to us and Frances had arranged health insurance and income cover, so we were able to cope with it. But I haven't worked for a year and a half nearly, and I got no payment from the [Irish] Injured Jockeys Fund, which is something I have contributed a vast amount of money to all my life.
"We're fine, but a lot of other jockeys wouldn't be that lucky if they were in the same situation and had kids and a mortgage and so on.
"I think it should be injury and serious illness cover – not just injury. I've spoken to the Jockeys Association and the Irish Horseracing Regulatory Board. It's not straightforward, but hopefully we'll get something in place. It needs to be addressed very quickly."
Like every other rider to wake up one day and find the weigh room out of bounds, Smullen is going through the process of feeling homeless on a racecourse.
"You walk around like a lost soul," he says, "and if I don't fill that void I'm afraid I would end up not wanting to go racing."
That loss of purpose doesn't stop at the racecourse. For a man with Smullen's work ethic and competitive urge, something will be required for him to get his teeth into.
He has come through the turmoil of the past year, and it feels like a destination has been reached, but the journey continues.
Their three kids, Hannah, Paddy and Sarah, will still need to be fed and educated. So what now?
"I'll ride out for Dermot and the bit of media work is grand, but it's true, I do need a purpose in life," he accepts.
"I've a few irons in the fire but I'm not going to rush into anything, and I can't just float – I'm not a floater. Nothing will ever replace the buzz of race-riding, I'm aware of that, but I'd like to find something where I feel I'm contributing."
One thing he is sure of is that he won't let past experience impede future goals. His cancer could return, and mortality has a visceral new meaning to him, but he won't live in fear.
"There is a threat of it coming back," he says phlegmatically.
"That's something I have to live with and we have to live with, but I'm damned if I'm going to let it ruin my life. I'll take every day as it comes and enjoy it."
Butch and the Sundance Kid never did make it to Oz, but Smullen and Walsh are from a different genre. Real life heroes.
They'll roll into Ascot in their silly hats and reminisce about the glory days like only old partners can. Frances and Gillian will be there, too, their minds finally at ease. It was worth it in the end.
Smullen's hot takes
I know it's complex, but society is getting bigger and I can't understand why they aren't increased, say to 9st 2lb and 9st 7lb in maidens. The same horses carry huge weights in the mornings and it would make a big difference to the jockeys' way of life and extend careers.
It's a fabulous stadium that was badly needed, but the pricing needs to be looked at. Going racing is an expensive day out as it is, and all the talk was that the new Curragh would bring people back racing, but if you want to do that you have to have affordable prices.
The new whip rules in Ireland
When I was riding I would have been anti any change, leave things alone, but they have got it right by putting a number on the strikes. If they aren't going to win for eight they're not going to win for ten, and the stewards have a little leeway. I think I only got done once when the limit came in in Britain, so riders do adapt.
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