Racing: Fatality mars Fondmort celebrations

Cheltenham: Fitzgerald lands big handicap chase with exhibition round but runner-up Poliantas pays ultimate price
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The two sides of racing's spinning coin were never in grimmer juxtaposition than after the Paddy Power Gold Cup here yesterday. After pulling Fondmort up in triumph in the traditional first hurrah to the jump season, Mick Fitzgerald found his way back to the winner's circle grotesquely blocked by the body of the runner-up, Poliantas, who had dropped dead on the walkway leading off the track.

The incident thoroughly took the gloss off Fondmort's splendid performance, one in which beast and man had seemed a centaur in their enjoyment of galloping and jumping round two-and-a-half miles at the sport's spiritual home. The sadness was acknowledged by the winning trainer, Nicky Henderson, like his stable jockey winning the valuable handicap, of which yesterday's was the 44th renewal, for the first time. "It puts it all in perspective," he said. "We all know each other and feel for each other, and we know what we are asking these horses to do. It's one of the fairest of sports, but this is one of the downsides. Perhaps there is some consolation in also knowing that the horse went out loving every minute of what he had just done."

Looking at Fondmort, it would be difficult to dispute that lapse into anthropomorphism. The seven-year-old, the well-backed 3-1 favourite, came back to his due acclaim as if on springs; if he had been human he would have been pumping a clenched fist and shouting "Yessss!" He hardly had a race, really; Fitzgerald put him to sleep in the pack as outsider Ei Ei gaily set off in front, eased him into contention at the top of the hill on the far side of the course, and eased him into the lead going to the penultimate obstacle.

Bill Brown's bay jumped the last fence as fast and cleanly as he had traversed the previous 14 and put eight lengths between himself and poor Poliantas, runner-up in the contest for the second time and for whom the phrase "ran his heart out" proved all too literal, on the final hill. Ei Ei plugged on gallantly for third place.

"Absolute perfection from horse and jockey," Henderson said. "But then, these two know each other very well. One thing we discovered about Fondmort some time ago is that you must let him enjoy himself. If you take a pull against him you disappoint him, and then he gets a bit flat. We were worried that he might have been a bit fresh - we haven't really been able to do that much with them at home this autumn because of the dry ground - but he settled and travelled beautifully. It was just an exhibition, a top job."

Fitzgerald, 33, made a huge mistake the previous Saturday at Sandown by becoming only the ninth man to ride 1,000 jump winners in Britain on the same day as Pat Eddery retired at Doncaster. But if his achievement was overshadowed then, the articulate Irishman, who returned to action only last month after most of the summer on the sidelines with a badly broken ankle, had the stage to himself yesterday. "I think that was winner No 1,005, but to be honest it's the next ones that matter, not the past ones," he said. "This one, though, was special. Riding a horse like Fondmort, who travels so well and is such a good jumper, in a race like this at a place like this sums up why we do it.

"I hardly had a moment's worry today. Before the race the horse looked like Mike Tyson on his way out to fight, and he gave me one of my best-ever rides. After the second-last he took a bit of a blow, but I didn't ease up on him and he responded. I didn't look behind, just kept my head down and kept booting."

A glance over his right shoulder might have eased any doubts. Five horses went into the penultimate obstacle with chances, but only three emerged on their feet. The well-fancied It Takes Time and Irish challenger Risk Accessor, particularly, were moving ominously well, but subsided in unison. Young Spartacus, just behind the leading group, did well to hurdle their slithering forms and stayed upright to take fourth place. Last year's winner, Cyfor Malta, was never a factor, but finished fifth.

Fordmort is likely to return here next month to bid for a repeat victory in the Tripleprint Chase. After that, a tilt at the King George VI Chase is pencilled in. "Kempton wasn't on my mind this morning, but it is now," Henderson said. "He's only seven, so progress is possible."

If consolation for It Takes Time's fall was needed for Tony McCoy and Martin Pipe, it came in the form of a treble, courtesy of Puntal in the opening novices' chase (in which Brother Joe, who fell two out under pressure and was another regrettable fatality on the day), The-realbandit in the stayers' handicap hurdle and Gone Too Far, given a vintage McCoy push to get up near home, in the closing novices' hurdle.