Pat Smullen has ridden Group One winners from Los Angeles to Paris, knows what classic success is like at Newmarket, Longchamp and the Curragh, experienced a nation grinding to a standstill in Melbourne and scaled the heights at Royal Ascot. So what about the Galway festival?
“What’s a politically correct way of putting it,” he ponders, briefly. “Unique. That’s the word for Galway.”
It’s a comment characteristic of the six-time champion jockey; considered and sure-footed, coolly observant, certainly nothing as impulsive as the verdict of one of his colleagues who once described the tightly undulating hurdy-gurdy piece of racecourse on the edge of Galway city as an overcrowded “flap”.
Certainly the boisterous heaving mass of humanity that will crowd into Ballybrit this week is a long way removed from Ascot. Some of the carousing carried out by the close on 150,000-strong attendance over the seven days will put even Flemington’s famous revelry in the shade. And any haughty Chantilly “turfiste” wandering in this week won’t find much space for liberté and will have to cope with a defiantly fraternité feel, simply because there’s no other option.
Love it or loathe it, Galway truly is unique. It is Irish racing’s defining fixture. Elsewhere in the world it is quality on-track that pulls in the crowds off-track. Even the festival’s most fervent fan though can’t dispute that much of the action is a long way from top class. Its two biggest prizes are jumps races at a time when the winter game’s biggest stars are still on their summer holidays.
Yet nothing pulls the crowds like Galway, nothing makes them bet more. And nobody makes them bet more than Dermot Weld.
The legendary trainer has always been the King of Ballybrit. But his 2011 tally of 17 winners was off the radar even by the standards of a man who has been leading trainer at the festival for 26 years. Even seasoned punters tear up the rule book when it comes to Galway, knowing that Weld horses are a law unto themselves up the famous climb to the finish line.
Like no one else, Weld has identified the festival as a priority, relished the challenge provided by it and appreciated the profile it has given. Not all the year revolves around mobilising the weaponry for Galway, but it is certainly no after-thought at the end of July. So the man in the saddle charged with squeezing the trigger on all this ammunition is under no illusions about what’s required. Getting it wrong is not an option.
With Weld the centre of attention this week, his jockey slips under the radar in comparison, which is just fine by Smullen. There’s enough pressure anyway. The trainer’s work is mostly done now. The horses are fit, entered and raring to go. And since they’re from Rosewell House, the Galway crowd expects them all to win. Riding them to success is what their jockey is supposed to do. Attention only comes when they don’t win because, as always, the jockey is always the bullseye when the blame game starts.
It’s a weird no-win scenario for someone whose own status as a near-automatic winner of the leading rider title gets substantially overlooked. Weld of course also has National Hunt runners for the week and at 36, Smullen has no urge to return to jumps – over which he got his first taste of racecourse action nearly 20 years ago. But it is primarily on the flat that the Weld juggernaut rolls. So while everyone else gets into an excitable fluster about the week ahead, Smullen remains determinedly businesslike.
“There’s no avoiding it; the pressure is there,” he acknowledges. “Everyone expects Dermot Weld runners to win and that’s simply not a reality. Get a few winners early and it can be an enjoyable week, you feel like you can win on anything. It’s like anywhere. It’s all about winners, but I like to think I don’t alter things when they don’t win. I don’t change how I ride. It’s always about putting the right horse in the right position.”
Riding on the flat is about decision-making, making split-second calls at 40mph that often don’t look like anything but can secure that crucial inch at the line. It’s not as spectacular as launching a chaser at a fence or lifting a tired hurdler over the last, but it’s as challenging in its own terms and getting it right more often than not is why the top jockeys get rewarded so well.
Smullen was only 21 when Weld, famously possessed of high standards when it comes to jockeys, appointed him as Mick Kinane’s successor and an impressive list of big-race wins around the globe testify to the rider’s ability to consistently call it right. It is 10 years since Weld sent Smullen out to win the 2,000 Guineas on Refuse To Bend with the words “ride him like the world-class jockey you are”.
Galway though brings its own challenges, especially on the back of a pretty ordinary season to date.
“It has been okay, only okay,” admits Smullen. “We’ve only had a certain amount of runners. Some high-profile horses have retired and we’re working with something of a clear canvas, with some exciting young stock. We’re lacking a bit at the higher level, but I don’t think it will be an issue for Galway. The handicaps are always very tight but I always feel we should be competitive in the maidens. That’s our strength.”
What won’t be different this week will be ground conditions that are traditionally supposed to be high-summer fast, a tradition that in reality occurs only occasionally. Certainly, hopes of a fast-ground festival look to have disappeared on the back of mixed weather in the last week which isn’t good news for a Weld team that usually thrives on fast conditions. Typically, though, Smullen adopts a level-headed approach.
“It’s a very undulating track and you get these ridges on it, which on soft ground don’t matter so much. But on fast ground, you hit one of those ridges wrong, it can put you right off your stride. It’s like hitting something in a car with no shocks,” says Smullen. “It is a different sort of course anyway, very demanding and you have to get it right. Go too soon and you simply won’t get up that hill.”
Smullen isn’t just busy at Galway, he is regularly the busiest jockey in Ireland throughout the year. Almost 400 rides in 2013 so far is the most of any rider, an indication of how popular he is with trainers when not required by Weld. And it is also helpful in terms of the usual bane of most jockey’s lives, weight. “I’m fortunate in being busy, and I like being active anyway. That’s been a huge help to my career. The weights going up a couple of pounds has been a huge help to anyone who’s had trouble with weight. Wasting hard every day is not sustainable and hopefully this will give longevity to my career. It helps in little things, especially when you’ve got kids. It just keeps your mind clearer,” he says.
And a clear mind is essential in the midst of the tumult of Galway festival week, when almost €1.6 million in prize money is up for grabs and the guts of €20 million will be wagered on the track alone. The figures are enough to make any head fuzzy, especially combined with Ballybrit’s unique holiday atmosphere. In Smullen though, punters will have a reliably cool ally.