Derby success cements Pat Smullen’s reputation as a top-flight jockey
Irish rider is now confirmed as a go-to choice on the international stage
Pat Smullen on Harzand winning the Dubai Duty Free Irish Derby. Photograph: Lorraine O’Sullivan/INPHO
Harzand’s dramatic Dubai Duty Free Irish Derby success was a 25th Group 1 career victory for Pat Smullen, although the champion jockey’s “standby” status for this Saturday’s Eclipse at Sandown indicates how that tally could rapidly increase in future.
Smullen beat off Ryan Moore on Idaho by half a length in Saturday evening’s €1.5 million renewal of Ireland’s premier classic, just the latest example of the exalted level that both jockeys operate at, and a rivalry that surely is only going to intensify in the years ahead.
In the short term, with Moore likely to be committed to ride for Aidan O’Brien in the Eclipse, it is Smullen who is in line to replace the Englishman on the ante-post favourite Time Test.
Unrivalled at home through the strength of the Dermot Weld team, such a scenario proves Smullen is now one of the main go-to figures on the international stage too when it comes to prestigious spare rides.
It is an enviable situation, patented by Mick Kinane in the 1990s when having the best of both worlds meant domestic domination interspersed with lucrative trips to the international big-stage, and none of the day-to-day drudge involved in Britain in particular.
Johnny Murtagh took up the mantle in the first decade of the new millennium and now it looks to be Smullen’s turn. The only surprise for many will be that it has taken the rest of the world so long to cotton on to the merits of Ireland’s latest riding maestro.
Smullen is 39 now. It is 19 years since his first Group 1 victory on Tarascon. Shortly afterwards, he replaced Kinane as Weld’s number one. In terms of big-race temperament, consistency, and the ability not to make mistakes when it counts, Smullen’s credentials are unquestioned over two decades.
“This is very much a game of fashion and a very good horse puts you in the limelight. I’m not doing a whole lot different in my riding. It’s just that Dermot has a higher calibre of horse, capable of operating on the big stage, and it’s all about the big stage,” Smullen said the day after Harzand became the 18th colt to complete the Epsom-Curragh double.
Kinane rode the ‘best of both worlds’ pony until he retired at 50. Murtagh stopped at 43. With current fashion so firmly in his favour, the heir to their mantle intends to make the most of his status, knowing well how racing success and momentum can be a self-perpetuating thing.
“You have to make the most of it while it’s happening. The jockeys’ championship is always important, but for me now it’s all about the big days,” Smullen said, before pointing out the obvious in how there’s currently no more potent big day presence in Europe than Weld.
Having recently passed the 4,000 mark in career winners, Weld gives every indication of not slowing down; according to Smullen, he actually seems to be “speeding up.”
Harzand’s Epsom success filled the Derby blank that had become more glaring with each passing year and the Aga Khan’s colt is now on track to try and do the same in the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe.
Weld’s third Irish Derby hero is as low as 8-1 for the Arc, with the odds in October favouring the sort of easy ground that so clearly suits him. Whatever the surface, what won’t be in doubt is Harzand’s appetite for a fight.
Weld immediately prescribed a good break for the colt, who overcame a foot injury scare at Epsom and bounced back just three weeks later to become his owner’s sixth Irish Derby winner.
It was Smullen’s second Irish Derby, a dozen years after Grey Swallow’s victory. For Ireland’s top rider, the odds are it won’t be the last.