Monday 14 October 2019

Golden moment

For Mick Fitzgerald, winning the Cheltenham Gold Cup was a lifetime ambition fulfilled, he tells Graham Dench

Fitzgerald on See More Business. Photo: Getty
Fitzgerald on See More Business. Photo: Getty
Mick Fitzgerald winning the Grand National on Rough Quest
Mick Fitzgerald in his commentary role on TV

Graham Dench

Those jockeys lucky enough to have ridden a Grand National winner are often defined by it, and after his 1996 victory on Rough Quest Mick Fitzgerald increased that likelihood immeasurably with the post-race interview that inspired his Better Than Sex autobiography.

However, while he was growing up in Wexford it was always the Gold Cup he coveted most and, while Rough Quest changed his life forever, Fitzgerald is just as proud of his Cheltenham win on See More Business three years later.

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Looking back 20 years on, and following more than a decade of seeing the sport from a different perspective, the emotions of that day seem undiminished, and he will relive them again every morning as he drives to Cheltenham to work for ITV and every afternoon as he watches victorious riders make their way back past the packed stands.

He says: "I didn't realise quite what a big deal the National was until I won it, and from that moment on I've always been introduced as 'Grand National-winning jockey Mick Fitzgerald', but while I was thrilled to have ticked it off, the race always had that lottery element to it.

"I still badly wanted the Gold Cup, because if you win the Gold Cup you have ridden the best three-mile chaser in the land on that day."

Explaining the resonance of the Cheltenham Gold Cup in his own life, Fitzgerald recalls: "I was 16 and shortly to have my first ride when Dawn Run won the Gold Cup in 1986. At that time Ireland was on its knees, with Irish winners in the bigger races not the everyday event they are now because most of our best horses were being sold to race in England.

"Dawn Run's win was a huge story at home and almost a momentum-changer for the whole country. From that moment on I always felt that if I were to win one big race I'd want it to be the Gold Cup."

Many thought See More Business had missed his opportunity in 1998 when he was second favourite and carried out by the injured Cyborgo. In the intervening 12 months his profile had become so unconvincing that when Fitzgerald took the ride for the first time he was a relatively unfancied 16/1 chance in a market dominated by Florida Pearl and Teeton Mill. Fitzgerald fancied him, however, and with good reason.

He says: "Paul Nicholls had two runners that year and Joe Tizzard was on Double Thriller. He was the improver and a much shorter price, but Paul was convinced I would suit See More Business and I was delighted to get the call.

"When I first schooled him I wasn't at all impressed, but he was really good over the ditch and I hoped he had just become too laid-back.

Paul said he really wanted to try him in blinkers, and when we put them on him at the bottom of the schooling grounds he was a different horse.

"Next time he absolutely flew the fences, and when we worked him at Wincanton a few days later it was the same story, and I left thinking he was a bit of an aeroplane. Having never ridden him on a bad day I said he was sure to be in the money at Cheltenham, although I had no right to be so confident."

Come the event and Fitzgerald was on a roll.

He had won the Queen Mother Champion Chase for Nicholls the day before on Call Equiname, who he was also riding for the first time, and he had won the Triumph Hurdle on hot favourite Katarino for his boss Nicky Henderson, who had gone several years without a winner.

Fitzgerald never lacked self-confidence but he was brimming with it by Gold Cup time.

Rightly so, as it turned out.

He remembers: "When Teeton Mill pulled up I felt I was going as well as anything and as we came down the hill and jumped three out I saw Richard Dunwoody on my inside giving Florida Pearl a squeeze, so I thought 'he's beat'. My old mate Go Ballistic was still with us, but I'd won on him a few times and knew him well. I thought I'd beat him as he didn't stay as well as me.

"I remember going down to the last, drilling See More Business all the way, and to his credit he answered my every call and dug really deep. That sensation I had going past the line has been relived again and again. It was just the most extraordinary feeling, a lifetime ambition fulfilled.

"I felt I could win on anything that day. Later on I won the Cathcart on Stormyfairweather and that clinched me the top jockey trophy."

Unlike many of his contemporaries, Fitzgerald has maintained a significant presence at The Festival since retirement, which was forced upon him earlier than planned in 2008. While it is not the same returning as a mere observer to an event at which he was once such a key player, he nonetheless enjoys his role with ITV and is glad to remain involved.

He says: "The anticipation approaching Cheltenham now is very different, because when you've been a jockey and been lucky enough to have that sort of success at Cheltenham I don't think you ever really adjust to going back there in another role.

"It's very different going to Cheltenham looking forward to riding a horse to going there looking forward to seeing one, but I do love it still. There's nowhere - nowhere at all - like it, and I appreciate how lucky I've been to stay in the sport."

Fitzgerald's first Festival as a broadcaster was a difficult one, but it has become easier. He says: "I was working for Radio 5 in 2009 and I remember I cried when I got back to the car after Punjabi won the Champion Hurdle. I don't mind admitting that, it hit me really hard.

"It was only then I realised it was all gone and I was never going to do it again. That feeling you get riding a winner at Cheltenham is like nothing you will ever feel again in normal life and when you are flying you think it will never end. Then when it does it's like your whole world crashes around you."

Fitzgerald was lucky to have good people around to reassure him that he had more to offer the sport and to tell him how fortunate he was to remain involved. Ten years on he has grown as a broadcaster and he hopes to stay involved for many years to come.

Having already worked for At The Races when he joined the Radio 5 Live team for Cheltenham, he has since covered many of the biggest events in the racing year for the BBC, Channel 4 and now ITV. No event is bigger than Cheltenham, however, and he prepares as thoroughly as he can because he knows he could not wing it.

He says: "I've been very lucky to work with broadcasters of the calibre of Clare Balding, Nick Luck and Ed Chamberlin, and hopefully some of their skills have rubbed off on me because I'm loving working for ITV.

"There's a great team ethos - not that there wasn't with the others - and a lot of that is down to Ed himself, as he's a really nice guy as well as a very good operator. It's not all about him and he's forever taking other team members' ideas on board and making sure they feel their role is just as important."

This year Fitzgerald expects to do two days on the podium and two days down at the start and says he enjoys both, although he finds it particularly interesting down among the jockeys.

He says: "A jockey like Ruby Walsh is like a golfer, taking in everything as they walk down the fairway, but in a totally different zone when they stand over the shot.

"Davy Russell, Noel Fehily and the other older lads are all like that too. They know how to switch it on and off, whereas some of the younger ones get too wrapped up in it and stop thinking logically. That's when mistakes occur."

Fitzgerald admits there might have been occasions when he fell into the latter camp himself and, while he is proud of his 14 Festival wins and two top-jockey titles, he would have liked more.

He says: "You always wish there had been more, and perhaps there should have been.

"I made some mistakes, and I'd love to go back and ride Remittance Man after putting him on the floor, but I'm very proud to have ridden the big winners and achieved what I achieved.

"I do a lot of jockey coaching these days and I tell my lads that mistakes are not such a bad thing so long as you learn from them."

Whether as a jockey or as a broadcaster, that's not a bad rule to live by.

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