Aintree hails Rough diamond

Grand National inquiry favours Fitzgerald and the favourite as Encore Un Peu comes off second best; `I've never been so frightened in all my life' Mick Fitzgerald, jockey of Rough Quest, on the wait before he was declared the winner `Had it been at Hereford, I would have got it' David Bridgwater, jockey of Encore Un Peu, on the result of the stewards' inquiry
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The Independent Online
CLASS told in the end. Rough Quest, runner-up in the Cheltenham Gold Cup 17 days ago, survived a stewards' inquiry to win a dramatic 152nd Grand National here yesterday. The 10-year-old gelding passed the line a length and a quarter in front of Encore Un Peu, with Superior Finish 16 lengths back in third.

But there was an agonising 10-minute wait for the winning team of the jockey Mick Fitzgerald, trainer Terry Casey and owner Andrew Wates before the all-clear was given and the pounds 107,000 Martell-sponsored first prize was secure. About 20 strides from the finish Rough Quest hampered Encore Un Peu slightly, and the stewards had no option but to sound the ominous inquiry klaxon.

Fitzgerald said: "I've never been so frightened in all my life to hear it. It's one thing to win the race, but a desperate thought that you might get it taken away from you.

"My horse was jumping in such a marvellous rhythm that I knew after four fences that all I had to do was sit there and not do anything stupid. He was so well- balanced, and didn't make the semblance of a mistake."

They say that riding a good horse over big fences is the best fun you can have with your trousers on, but Fitzgerald, one of the wittiest and most articulate members of the weighing-room, added: "It was the best nine minutes of my life. Sex will be an anti-climax after this."

The Grand National is no respecter of reputations. At the first fence last year's winner, Jason Titley, and Marcus Armytage, successful in 1990, were on the ground and the 1992 heroes Party Politics and Carl Llewellyn went at the third.

Two of the outsiders, Sure Metal and Three Brownies, took the field along on the first circuit at such a lick that the winning time of 9min 0.8sec was the second fastest ever after Mr Frisk's in 1990.

All the survivors jumped Becher's without accident, nor were there any casualties at the biggest fence, The Chair, where Young Hustler showed in front. At Becher's second time, Fitzgerald, who had hunted round the first circuit in time-honoured fashion, was sitting with a double handful behind the leading group. The well-fancied Irish challenger Son Of War had been travelling well, but made his first mistake here, and unseated Conor O'Dwyer with another at the Canal Turn.

Three out Young Hustler, Three Brownies and Encore Un Peu were in the air together; two out Encore Un Peu went to the front and Martin Pipe's hopes of a second National in three years must have been high. But just behind him Fitzgerald had not yet moved on Rough Quest.

The Irish-bred bay is a horse who must not hit the front too soon - he has a muscle enzyme problem which causes cramp under pressure - and the stylish Fitzgerald delayed his challenge until after The Elbow on the long run-in. But as he went past Encore Un Peu, Rough Quest, tiring, drifted left towards the running rail and David Bridgwater, on the runner-up, making the most of the incident, switched to his right.

From the stands it seemed the interference was minimal, and the stewards undoubtedly made the right decision. Bridgwater himself admitted afterwards: "I had to snatch up a little bit, but it was very good acting. I thought I might have a go at getting it, but it was the right result, and I'm very happy to have finished second."

The Cork-born Fitzgerald, 25, concurred. "We'll have to nickname him Jurgen Klinsmann," he said. "If he'd been a footballer It would have been a very good dive, and the ref would probably have given the penalty. But the racing stewards have cameras at all angles to help them.

"It's very hard to wait and wait on a horse, but he's not a difficult ride. Encore Un Peu surprised me, because he quickened after the last, but Rough Quest had enough left to take him."

Superior Finish snatched third from Sir Peter Lely to preserve Jenny Pitman's good National record, with Young Hustler fifth. In another inquiry, the stewards dismissed interference between the fourth and fifth.

There was one fatality in the race: Rust Never Sleeps was put down after breaking a shoulder approaching the 13th fence. Deep Bramble pulled up lame before two out. Later, in the handicap hurdle, two more horses were fatally injured.

The decision to run Rough Quest, at 7-1 the first favourite to win since Grittar in 1982, was taken only after he proved that his magnificent Cheltenham effort had taken little out of him.

Casey, 50, who trains near Dorking, in Surrey, for Wates - a director of the construction firm that bears his family name - said: "The intention had been to go for the Gold Cup or the National, not both. But five days after the Gold Cup he was jumping out of his skin. His owner came down and rode him. And the horse showed, by almost running away with him, that he was ready."

Next year's priority will be the Gold Cup. "If he'd been as well on Gold Cup day as he is today, it might have been a different story at Cheltenham," Casey said. "I hope it will be next time."

Lely in the pink, page 31