Mick Fitzgerald: Too old, too sore, but the unbridled passion lives on

At 35 and recovering from a broken neck, most riders would be putting their feet up. Nick Townsend hears why this one isn't

Fitzgerald, the Gold Cup and Grand National-winning rider and one of the sport's endearing, and enduring, characters, is Back On Tour. The show opens tomorrow in understated manner at Ludlow, but by Saturday will have moved on to Newbury, where he will partner the favourite, Trabolgan, in one of jump racing's autumn spectaculars, the Hennessy Gold Cup.

Next to winning a race, there is probably no greater feeling of exultation for a jockey than being "passed fit" by the Jockey Club's chief medical officer, Dr Michael Turner. Especially if, back in July, you have been airlifted to hospital from the racecourse at Market Rasen after a fall, with injuries which, it later transpired, were considerably more complex than first suspected; ones that required this genial Irishman firmly to articulate his own intuitive feelings that all was not right before the correct diagnosis was eventually made.

It was at the fifth fence at Market Rasen that he had parted company from Celtic Boy in the Summer Plate. "Routine X-rays" at Lincoln Hospital had shown what was believed to be a shoulder injury.

"They just thought it was a bad break," Fitzgerald recalled after his visit to Turner on Thursday. "Anyway, I went back home, but I knew it was something more. About a week later, at [the jockey] Vince Slattery's son's funeral, I nearly collapsed, so I went to see a specialist at the John Radcliffe in Oxford and insisted on having an MRI scan. Basically, I had broken my neck."

He added: "They had missed it at Lincoln. That's scary. If I had carried on, and had a fall on that area, it could well have paralysed me, because it was unstable and weak. I was very fortunate." Treatment included taking a bone graft from his pelvis and inserting two rods in his neck. He also had to wear a brace.

Though Fitzgerald has been doing riding work and schooling for the stable that retains him, Nicky Henderson's Lambourn yard, for several days, that repaired neck will be put on the line for the first time tomorrow in the bumper (a National Hunt Flat race), the last race on the card at Ludlow, the course which was the scene of his first winner back in December 1988.

Seventeen years on, with an alternative career in the offing as a television racing analyst and perhaps a move into the trainers' ranks, he conceded that as he lay there in hospital a voice did invade his consciousness, asking him: "Do you really want to carry on?", even assuming the specialists would allow him to.

Though the answer was emphatically "Yes", he admitted: "I've been lucky enough to win a lot of big races for, and have a great association with, Nicky Henderson, who's a gentleman to deal with. I think if I didn't have a job like that I possibly wouldn't have had the same fire to come back."

He added: "You know, I was schooling some lovely horses at Nicky's this morning, and riding work yesterday morning on Trabolgan and another nice individual called Wogan. I came in and thought to myself, 'That's why I do it'. To ride horses like that. It's rough and smooth, of course, as these last four months have shown. I've been around for a long time, and for a whole lot longer, I hope."

And yet you silently question that resolve. Is it merely coincidence that his favourite song is Patsy Kline's "Crazy"? Only a fortnight before his fall at Market Rasen, the young jockey Tom Halliday had died in action on the same course. Was that not a salutary warning?

"Jump jockeys always tend to say things like, 'I know the next time I go out to ride could be my last'. We all know there have been jockeys killed and paralysed. But if you really thought about what might happen, you wouldn't do it. No way. It's a bit like earthquakes, that kind of thing. It doesn't happen to you. Only one day, it might." Retirement from race-riding evidently remains a distant land of opportunity, not a nearby haven. Not when chasers like Trabolgan are there to be ridden. The seven-year-old, he revealed, "felt fantastic" in that recent home work. However, though he is around 11-2 favourite for the Hennessy - a race neither Fitzgerald nor Henderson have won - Trabolgan, victorious at last season's Cheltenham Festival, will have to perform with some distinction to enhance his present Gold Cup claims. "He's got to find around 24lb improvement to be a Gold Cup contender," Fitzgerald said. "That's a fair step. But if he keeps progressing, who knows?"

Other horses to have prospered while the jockey has recuperated are Henderson's ex-French chaser Crozan, a winner at Cheltenham last weekend. "I had schooled him on the previous Monday. I got off him and said to Nicky, 'This is a proper horse'. He looks quite an exciting prospect." Fitzgerald is also enthusiastic about the prospects of the hurdler Afsoun and Fleet Street, a top-class hurdler whom he has been schooling over fences.

Fitzgerald emphasised, however, that he will not restrict his energies to partnering horses at Henderson's Seven Barrows yard. The effect of such a stylish senior pro on the prowl is similar to that of a fox sniffing around a chicken coop. "When you're coming back, you want to re-establish contacts that you had," he said. "I say to all the lads, 'Right, I'm going in there [a particular stables] to ride out or school, or there, or there', and their reaction is, 'Oh [spoken in a tone of uncertainty], really?' But I've got nothing to hide. If I didn't do it, somebody else would. There's plenty of lads snapping at my heels, trying to nick my rides. So, why not?"

What such an attitude confirms is the claim of Michael Caulfield, the former chief executive of the Jockeys' Association, that he has never met a man "with such inner belief as Mick Fitzgerald" - even though it is clear that the Irishman's compulsive desire to ride big-race winners has its downside.

"It's very difficult to maintain a relationship," said Fitzgerald, who is divorced from his ex-wife, Jane. "The problem is that you're married to only one thing - and that's your job. All I was concerned about was riding, that's all that mattered to me, and my marriage suffered, although I am pleased that we are still good friends now." He added: "You have got to have somebody who understands how this job takes you over."

Which is perhaps why he remains ambivalent about plans to switch the jockey's helmet for the trainer's trilby when the day arrives that saddle-soreness finally takes its toll. "I've been very fortunate," he said. "I came over from Ireland with nothing. Not a pot to piss in. I've had a lot of winners. I have earned a few quid. Lost most of it. But then, who hasn't? But I don't look at it like that. I am a great believer in looking ahead. Not looking back."

He added: "As a trainer, you're basically giving up your life. It's like having children, because they are there every day. Whether you have had a shit day or a good day, you've still got to go out and feed them, still be on hand to look after them. But if someone came to me and said, 'I want you to train 40 or 50 horses for me', well, I'd love that."

And who would doubt that he could successfully complete the metamorphosis? As Caul-field once said: "If Fitzgerald's attitude and mindset were copied by athletes across other sports, we would have a nation of champions."

He responded to that acclamation: "My father always said to me, 'If you don't believe in yourself, how can you expect anyone else to?' It's a simple philosophy. But I firmly believe that I'm good enough to do the job every time I go out to ride. People think there's pressure riding favourites, and I say, 'I'd rather ride the favourite than a 33-1 shot'. It's like taking penalties. If someone said, 'Will you take one?', I'd say, 'Yes. Give me the ball'. I might miss, but when I ran up to hit the ball I'd be convinced I was going to score."

Which is why Trabolgan could not be in any better hands come Saturday. And God only help Fitzgerald's opponents if he had opted for a career in football...

LIFE & TIMES

From Cork to Cheltenham:

BORN: 10 May 1970, Co Cork, Ireland.

HEIGHT: 5ft 6in.

RACING WEIGHT: 10st 3lb.

BIGGEST WINS: 1996 Grand National (Rough Quest), 1999 Gold Cup (See More Business), 1999 Queen Mother Champion Chase (Call Equiname), 2000 Arkle (Tiutchev), 2000 Stayers Hurdle (Bacchanal).

CAREER: Began riding in Ireland at 16, before moving to Britain at 18. Rode first winner in England in December 1988 before joining Nicky Henderson's operation at Lambourn. Famously proclaimed after winning 1996 Grand National: "Sex is an anticlimax after this." Reached 1,000 winners in 2003.

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