Racing: Fitzgerald called up to partner Azertyuiop

The fun will soon be over for those who think of racing purely as a sport of the Flat and its fast horses. Memories of the Breeders' Cup may still glimmer brightly and there remains the punting bunfight of the November Handicap to come, but, in nine days' time, the turf season will be at an end.

National Hunt racing then becomes the staple, a quite dispiriting thought if the measure is the porridge which has been served up in the name of the jumps over the summer months.

The despair, however, will be fleeting. When the Open meeting is run at Cheltenham next month, Flat racing will immediately seem a distant and dilettante offshoot of the sport. The grand names of the winter realm will be back.

In addition, a glorious harbinger appears at Exeter next Tuesday, when the fleet-footed Azertyuiop sets out on a second season over fences. He was unbeaten throughout the first, culminating in the Arkle Trophy at the Cheltenham Festival. Such was the impression he created there, such is his palpable promise, that Azertyuiop is already quoted by Coral as 3-1 joint-favourite with the great champion Moscow Flyer to collect next spring's Queen Mother Champion Chase.

It should be that the West Country will witness another triumphant round, but it will do so with a different man at the controls of the tall horse. The six-year-old's regular jockey, Ruby Walsh, remains hors de combat with a leg injury and, while Joe Tizzard has capitalised on most of the opportunities at Paul Nicholls's yard recently, John Hales, Azertyuiop's owner, has specifically asked that Mick Fitzgerald be brought in for this assignment. Fitzgerald himself has only recently returned to the saddle after reconstructive surgery to an ankle.

"As long as he works well on Saturday and the ground is all right he will run at Exeter and Mick will ride him," Nicholls confirmed yesterday.

It could well be that the main rival to Azertyuiop hegemony in Britain this year is a Ditcheat stablemate in the shape of Le Roi Miguel. A year younger, though you could not tell because of his massive proportions, Le Roi Miguel is regarded as barely a pace behind Azertyuiop on the Somerset gallops, though the two have never actually worked together.

Their first collision could well be in the Tingle Creek Chase at Sandown, for which Le Roi Miguel is likely to have an overseas preparation. Long distance options are also being considered for last year's Game Spirit Chase winner, Kadarann, for whom Walsh is already spotting openings in his native Ireland.

"If it rains, I am quite keen to take Le Roi Miguel to the James Nicholson Wine Merchants Champion Chase at Down Royal," Nicholls added. "Kadarann is pencilled in for a two-mile chase at the Open meeting at Cheltenham."

Festival aspirations were also entertained for Alan King's Flat winner Trouble At Bay, at least until he ran fourth in a maiden hurdle at Kempton on Saturday. The drawing board has been reapproached.

"I was very disappointed with him," King said yesterday. "I don't know why he ran so badly but he seems okay. I've no immediate plan. After his successful Flat campaign he was joint-favourite for the Triumph Hurdle but that looks a little bit ridiculous at the moment. He'd have to run an awful lot better than he did on Saturday."

* The Jockey Club appeared to make a partial retreat yesterday in its confrontation with jockeys over restrictions on mobile phones being used at race tracks. Riders, for a trial period, will now be allowed to make mobile phone calls from within the "phone zone" without having to log details. The move was welcomed by the Jockeys Association. The Jockey Club said it had "looked at various ways of making jockeys' lives easier while at the same time maintaining the integrity of racing".

Racing in brief: Keohane recovering

* Helen Keohane, an Irish apprentice rider, is on her way to recovery after being discharged from hospital in Dublin yesterday after a fall at Leopardstown on Monday in which she was knocked unconscious. Another apprentice, Sean Cleary, was still critically ill yesterday in intensive care at the Beaumont Hospital, Dublin, following a fall at Galway.

* Music To My Ears came under official scrutiny after drifting in the betting from 4-1 to 7-1 before running poorly at Cheltenham yesterday. The Jonjo O'Neill-trained five-year-old was found to be slightly lame on his off-fore after the race. The horse was pulled up after three fences in the novices' handicap. His performance was "noted" by the track's stewards.

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