Fitzgerald still ballistic as the jumping season fades

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The Independent Online
GREG WOOD

reports from Ascot

A sharp breeze meant that it felt a little unlikely, but if you stood in the betting ring and looked out towards Swinley Bottom, there it was. A heat haze - faint, but unmistakeable, and the latest sign that very soon the names on the bookies' boards will be unfamiliar, and in many cases unpronounceable.

National Hunt racing no long stops for the summer, but its state of near torpor is fast approaching. Yesterday's meeting was run in an end-of- term atmosphere which extended even to some of the gatemen, one or two of whom were actually seen to smile at racegoers.

Only the jockeys, many of whom have now been at it six days a week for nine months or more, went about their business with the usual application, and none more so than Mick Fitzgerald. Four days after winning the Grand National on Rough Quest, Fitzgerald won the novice chase on Go Ballistic, a quirky character who none the less started favourite at 9-4.

It was a typical Fitzgerald peformance, as the jockey bided his time, sat tight and gave his mount time to recover after a mistake three fences out, and then swiftly settled the issue between the last two. True professional that he is, though, an hour later his thoughts were more of the fall from Plunder Bay, again at the third-last, which probably cost him victory in the day's richest race, the Daily Telegraph Novice Handicap Chase, for Nick Henderson, the trainer who retains him.

"I didn't see the finish, but I was travelling so well that I thought I'd nearly have won," he said, and Plunder Bay, who was making his chasing debut yesterday, is one to watch out for with particular diligence.

With a winner a day since Saturday, there is clearly no danger that either big-race success or the back-end atmosphere might persuade Fitzgerald to ease himself gently into the summer. "I scrubbed around in a lot of places for rides early on," he said, "and it's made me realise that the success I'm achieving now is down to that. When you've struggled for so long, you appreciate the success a lot more, but at the same time you still have enough realism to know that you've got to go to the small meetings too."

"The Grand National stands out as the best moment so far, but each winner I ride gives me a buzz and it's that buzz which keeps you going. Even if you're feeling tired at the end of a long week when you've had a few falls, just one winner is enough to cancel out all the rest of it. The feeling in the weighing room always changes a little after Aintree, but I set myself a target of 80 winners this season and I've got a fair way to go, so I'm hammer and tongs to do that."

The finish which Fitzgerald did not see concerned Destiny Calls and Southampton, the latter winning cosily after Destiny Calls crashed through the last. Since the invincible Tony McCoy was aboard Southampton it is unlikely the result would have been different if the runner-up had jumped the last like Arkle.

That McCoy will start next season as champion jockey is now in little doubt. Toby Balding, Southampton's trainer and the man who discovered McCoy, is understandably biased, but still it was difficult to quibble with his fulsome praise for the Irishman. "He's got a marvellous attitude, a great racing brain and is as professional as you'd wish to see," Balding said. "He can't go any higher."

As far as jockeys go, though, the most significant sight yesterday was Frankie Dettori, tanned, beaming and itching to ride. "No-one told me it was a jumps meeting," he said. Patience, Frankie, your moment is at hand.

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