Saturday 17 February 2018

'Be under no illusions about this process. This is life-threatening'

Injury finished Mick Fitzgerald's career prematurely but, as he tells John O'Brien, worse was to follow

O NE day towards the end of October, Mick Fitzgerald was sitting helplessly in his hospital bed in Oxford when the mocking absurdity of his plight struck him. In his long career as a jump jockey, Fitzgerald had fought a never-ending battle with his weight, routinely punishing himself beyond belief to wrench his 5ft 10in frame somewhere in the region of 10st. He never knew a day when the scales weren't a constant, mocking presence.

He was approaching the end of his seventh week in hospital. More than a year had passed since he'd announced his decision to retire from the saddle. He thought of all the years he'd spent as an obsessively driven race rider: the falls and the breaks and the bruises, the junk yard of metal that clogged his body. And never once in all those years had he spent such a long stretch on the flat of his back in hospital. That was the crazy thing.

At an appointed hour every morning he would watch them wheel the scales in. Those damn scales again. And every day they would record faithfully just how much he'd shrunk in the previous 24 hours. At his most gaunt he weighed in at a little over 9st, two stone lighter than when he'd entered. Three and a half months being fed through a tube. Why, he joked, hadn't he thought of this before?

For most jockeys the relationship with food is a pernicious and complicated one. As a young jockey, Fitzgerald came to a delicate understanding with his diet and it was the making of him. When you struggled with your weight, he realised, your mind coveted food all the more. But he knew it wasn't all it seemed. There was always, literally, a heavy price to pay.

Starvation was ultimately the easier path. The trick was when he saw something he liked, he looked at it twice. The first time to see how much he wanted it, the second to imagine what he'd have to do to burn off the calories. The second thought invariably killed the desire of the first. Every day Fitzgerald allowed himself the luxury of a single bar of chocolate to stave off the inevitable rebellion that would ensue from a daily regime of denial.

"It was a very strange experience," he says now. "I'd spent my whole life worrying about weight. Worrying about being heavy. And now I didn't have to worry about it anymore and I still couldn't eat. In my whole life I think I can only remember one Christmas Day when I couldn't eat dinner and this year was the second. It was just a very weird feeling."

Retirement had been tough. But it hadn't been a bind. It had come four months after a crushing fall from L'Ami at the second fence in the Grand National. He had broken four vertebrae in his neck and two of them had penetrated his spinal chord. He figured he would ride again but the doctor's sombre tones convinced him of the futility. He could return, he was told, but he would be riding with a noose around his neck.

He thought of the first time he'd sat on a horse as a nine-year-old in his native Wexford and contemplated a future without riding. He'd miss the horses and the riding out. The friendship he had developed with Nicky Henderson. The camaraderie of the yard. The clatter of hooves and the hum of activity that greeted him first thing every morning. Seven Barrows was his bootroom, the axis around which his riding life revolved.

And yet how bad was it really? He was 37, the fifth most winning jump jockey of all time. He had a wife and two children under two. He was like a war-weary veteran returning from the front, ready to pick up the thread of his life. Shaken but still intact.

"A part of you thinks 'thank God that's the end of it now. No more hospitals'. They told me I couldn't ride again even for pleasure because of the amount of metal I had in my neck. Another fall could be the catalyst. So you think, 'fair enough. That chapter of my life is over. I don't have to worry now. The biggest problem I have is if I fall off a barstool'."

Not knowing, of course, what lay ahead of him. Not knowing that the worst was yet to come.

* * * * *

HE knew what was coming even before the horse's hind legs had left the take-off side. L'Ami had got far too deep to the fence and, even though the second is not one of the most demanding National fences, he knew they would pay heavily for taking such a liberty. He steeled himself as they went crashing through the fern. This was going to hurt. This was going to be a bonecrusher.

"It's funny when I look back. I had the impact. Then I woke up instantly and couldn't feel anything. The first thing that came into my head was 'Please don't let this happen to me. I've two young children. I want to be able to play with them'. Of all the things I could've thought about that's what was in my head. I could've thought 'Oh my God, I can't feel my legs'. But it wasn't that. It's a strange one really."

The grim irony wasn't lost on him. The race that had launched him as a top jockey when he won on Rough Quest in 1996 would be the one that, ultimately, would take his career from him. In those torrid months when his riding future hung in the balance people would tell him, as if to placate him, that at 37 his time had been approaching anyway. As if that would soften the blow.

It wasn't how Fitzgerald saw it, though. He had given serious thought to quitting in 2007 but every morning he would arrive at Seven Barrows and survey the young talent that Henderson had at his disposal. He knows exactly how Mick Kinane must have felt when he first sat on Sea The Stars in the early spring of 2008. With notions of the glory days to come, how could you think of quitting the stage?

"Like, you see the seasons Nicky has had, this year and last year. I was in no rush to give it up. I could see all those good horses coming. And at the time I was starting to scale it down and ride just for the one stable. Nicky is one of the best at schooling horses. For everybody else it's basically one in every 13 rides is a fall. For Nicky Henderson, it's about one in 40."

In the end there would be no glorious, Kinane-like swansong. It was another cruel irony that on his first day as a presenter on At The Races in October 2008, one of Fitzgerald's duties was to interview Barry Geraghty, his replacement at Seven Barrows, who had just ridden a winner on his first ride for the stable. At Cheltenham last year he watched Geraghty surge up the hill to win the Champion Hurdle on Punjabi, the one big race to elude Fitzgerald as a jockey.

At the Festival he'd worked for the BBC as a radio analyst. Two days before the meeting started, he'd sat down and watched every race from the previous two Festivals and felt all the old emotions stirring inside him. He missed the game. Riding had been the narcotic he'd overdosed on for more than 20 years. Nothing could replace the buzz or fill the void that had been left.

He needed something to put things in perspective. But where would it come from?

* * * * *

FROM the ninth green at The Oxfordshire Golf Club it is a gentle rise to the tenth tee. Nothing demanding though. It is the second week in September. The outward nine have gone well and he is looking forward to the turn for home. Then he hauls himself up the gentle slope and suddenly he is panting for breath, out on his feet.

"I had to sit down on the trolley. Absolutely bolloxed. I thought what the fuck is wrong with me here?"

He'd first sensed a problem at the beginning of summer. The recovery from his fall in the National seemed to have gone to plan, but why was he feeling so listless? So constantly drained? All his life Mick Fitzgerald had been an active person. Now there were times he didn't even want to stand up. It was as if his life was being slowly sucked out of him.

He'd been to two different doctors but blood tests hadn't revealed anything sinister. He was told he might be suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder but he found that strange and unsatisfactory. He'd never heard of such a condition in relation to racing before. That was what soldiers suffered when they returned from wars. Whatever his ailment, he was certain it was of a physical nature.

Then the fevers started. He would sit wrapped up at home, shivering with cold while his temperature ratcheted up to 38 degrees. At first they would strike maybe once a month and then the frequency increased: twice a month, once a week, twice a week. No one else in his family picked up the symptoms. That set his alarm bells ringing.

At the end of the summer, he visited his regular GP who had been away on maternity leave. She conducted tests that measured the level of infection in his bloodstream. For healthy people the normal reading is between zero and eight. Fitzgerald returned a score of 187. He was referred immediately to the infectious diseases clinic at John Radcliffe Hospital in Oxford.

After further tests they informed him they had identified the problem and he remembers feeling relieved until they told him he wouldn't be leaving the hospital that night. One of the plates in front of his spine had caused an infection which had spread to his lungs. A burst abscess had exacerbated his condition. Fitzgerald was more ill than even he had feared.

"The guy who was in charge of the infection came to speak to me and said be under no illusion about this process. This is life-threatening. He said if it had continued undetected it would have killed me. I was absolutely gobsmacked. I was 39 years of age. My wife was eight and a half months pregnant. I felt I'd led a pretty charmed life but at that moment I was seriously scared."

That night the surgeons went to work, smashing his ribs in order to reach and clear away the infection. Three days later they cut him open again to insert a tube to bypass his oesophagus which had developed a hole from the first operation. The scar tissue that had accumulated from multiple operations in the past made Fitzgerald a complex case.

Three more operations would follow: one to remove the offending plate, two to finally fix the hole in his throat. Twelve days ago he travelled back to the hospital to conduct a swallow test to see if his oesophagus was finally working. He shook with nerves in a way he never did before the biggest. Five previous tests had failed and the grim prognosis of another failure loomed large: more surgery or the fitting of a prosthetic tube into his throat that would likely remain for life.

"It was nerve-wracking because I didn't know whether I'd be able to take the next step and the consequences of failure weren't nice. And when it worked it was the strangest feeling. Just being able to drink a glass of water. It was the first time I'd had any liquid for three and a half months. When you can't eat or drink everybody keeps asking you if you feel hungry. I was fed through a PEG tube directly into my stomach. It took 12 hours overnight and I was never hungry or never full. It was like eating didn't exist."

He sees the side effects of his illness as small inconveniences now and thinks nothing of the 10-inch scar that runs from his lower back to his shoulder.

"Like I was attacked by Jaws," he laughs. It was more important that he was out of hospital when Chloe gave birth to their first daughter, Lola. And those long interminable days in bed helped him re-establish his love for the sport in a way that wasn't defined by his days in the saddle.

He can appreciate it on its own terms now. It is important but not that important. He watches and the pangs of envy are minimal now. He listens to all the chatter about how racing needs to improve its image but as he lay in hospital, swamped by a daily deluge of support and goodwill from all corners of the globe, he found it hard to be convinced that there was that much about the sport that needed fixing.

He remembers an interview he did not so long back with Peter Toole, a young jockey from Ireland. Toole explained how he had arrived in England last year and found himself a job with Charlie Mann.

It reminded Fitzgerald of the time he came to England in 1988 and had to forge his way in the game. He liked the fact that you still had to graft. And if anything it was even harder these days with McCoy and Walsh setting the bar ever higher. Good, he thought. That's how it should be.

He's not pining for the saddle anymore. The walls of his office at home are lined with images of his successful past and it is enough to cherish those memories. He has a media job to focus on, a wife to love, three kids to play with and a body that is on its way to full recovery. More than enough for which to be thankful.

"The truth is it does take something major to make you realise how lucky you are. I know the best thing that happened to me was the day I bumped into Chloe. She's been amazing through this whole thing. I thought I was pretty strong but she's the strongest person I've ever met."

From the mouth of Mick Fitzgerald it is some compliment.

Sunday Independent

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