Kevin Blake

Leading racing writer Kevin Blake hails the horse racing industry coming together on Irish Champions Weekend, where nearly €2 million has been raised thanks to the Pat Smullen Champions Race For Cancer Trials Ireland charity race.

  • Monday 16 September
  • Blog
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There were eight Group 1 races run between Ireland, Britain and France that produced some quite incredible performances over the weekend. However, there is no doubt in my mind that the race that will live longest in the memory for those that witnessed it is the Pat Smullen Champions Race For Cancer Trials Ireland.

Such a statement may be interpreted by some as overegging the pudding given the quality of the action around the racing world, but I promise you, it couldn’t be more sincere.

It had originally been billed as a fundraising charity race that would see the triumphant return to the saddle of Pat Smullen after he had seen off the biggest challenge he had ever faced in pancreatic cancer. Unfortunately, everything changed a month ago when it was revealed that Smullen had experienced a setback that necessitated more chemotherapy and obviously ruled him out of riding in the race.

The news of his setback wasn’t just a blow to Smullen and his family, but to his endless number of friends and admirers in the racing world and beyond. However, it served to concentrate everyone’s minds on making the fundraising around the race as successful as possible in his honour. In response, the racing world rallied around it in quite remarkable fashion.

From jockeys, trainers, owners, grooms, racing professionals and the racing public, so many gave their time and put their hands in their pockets as best they could to support the cause. On the day, a crowd of over 10,000 turned up to the Curragh. One suspects a fair number of those would have there if the Champions Race had been the only event on the card.

The one thing that didn’t play ball on the day was the weather. Mind, in a perverse way, the fact that it rained before, during and after the Champions Race only served to show how determined everyone was to support the race and cause.

Despite the rain, such a colossal crowd enveloped the parade ring before the race that it is unlikely to have been much bigger had the sun been shining. That tells you everything you need to know about the energy and enthusiasm that surrounded this event.

Once the stage was set, the Champions entered the arena. It is a common theme amongst retired sportspeople that they regret not better appreciating their greatest successes in the there and then. Such is the driven nature of world-class competitors, they rarely allow themselves to do so. The focus is always on the next challenge rather than the one that has just been completed.

It is only in the years that follow their retirement that the absence of that winning feeling makes them fully appreciate how special those moments were. Invariably, they pine for that magic feeling again.

With that in mind, it was very clear on Sunday that each and every one of the nine Champions that donned silks and made that walk to the parade ring again were not going to let the moment pass them by. They soaked up every second of it, interacting enthusiastically with the massive crowd that had gathered in the rain to witness a collection of champion jockeys never before seen on a horseback in one parade ring.  

With Dessie Scahill coming out of his own retirement to provide the soundtrack, the whole thing was surreal. Nostalgia was flowing freely. It was magical.

The race itself was the treat everyone hoped it would be. Ruby Walsh and AP McCoy settled down to fight it out with a furlong to run with Johnny Murtagh swooping down the outside to make his challenge and Paul Carberry coming there travelling best with his backside in the air. It was a scene that would have been deemed too farfetched to even hypothesise about from a bar stool just a few months ago, but here it was playing out in front of our eyes.

McCoy was the one that came out on top and by God did he enjoy it! Four years have passed since he had last ridden in the Leger Legends race at Doncaster. He has spoken openly about how winning that race just five months or so after his retirement had led to him being mentally tormented by doubts as to whether he should have retired at all.

AP McCoy celebrates winning The Pat Smullen Champions Race For Cancer Trials Ireland

However, the passage of time is a great healer and one got the distinct impression on Sunday that he was a man enjoying every moment of his final victory for what it was and the greater good of it rather than what it could be.

The post-race scenes were understandably emotional. Horse racing is a game full of hard men and hard women, but plenty of them were seen to shed tears on Sunday. Occasions such as this are always emotional rollercoasters, as for all the joys of the event itself, the reasons why it is taking place can never be too far from anyone’s mind.

Donations are still coming in and being collated, but it is hoped that the funds raised around the race, which already are well in excess of €1m, could even break the €2m barrier. That is a truly phenomenal number. It has already made a measurable impact too, as since the money has started to flow into Cancer Trials Ireland in recent weeks they have reportedly already been able to employ three new people to help in their research. This money will help change and save lives.

What has been achieved by this wonderful race and the fundraising efforts around it illustrate a wider truth about our industry. Horse racing’s various factions seem to spend their lives bickering. Whether it be racing professionals or the racing public, all too often we seem to focus on negatives rather than positives.

What the Pat Smullen Champions Race showed in no uncertain terms is that when everyone in this wonderful industry of ours has their minds focused to push in the same positive direction, unbelievable things can be accomplished.

It is so sad that it takes something so heart breaking as the situation Pat Smullen finds himself in to unite everyone in the industry, but it goes to show what can be achieved when the will is there.

Everyone that organised, contributed to and supported the Pat Smullen Champions Race should be very proud of themselves. Special is an overused work, but it really was truly special.


If you would like to donate to Cancer Trials Ireland, you can do so by following this link.

Just as importantly, if you have already donated in excess of €250, there is a link on the above page to a CH4 form which only take a couple of minutes to fill in and send. Completing this form allows Cancer Trials Ireland to reclaim the tax they would have had to pay on your donation at no extra cost to you.

Every little helps and if everyone that was so generous to donate such a sum completes the form, it would represent another significant boost to the money that goes to the charity.

Kevin Blake
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