Racing: Fitzgerald's perfect pain relief

Hennessy Gold Cup: Trabolgan gives Henderson his first victory in Newbury showpiece
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The Independent Online

"Home town, home team, home track," trainer Nicky Henderson enthused. What he scarcely needed to add as the crowd acclaimed his charge, Trabolgan, was that it was a famous home victory for the man who trains only 15 miles away at Lambourn. Whatever the effect a top weight of 11st 12lb had on the winner, it was negated by the lift provided by the local support. After 26 years, the man who has secured just about every major trophy there is to be hunted in an impenetrable and frequently cruel National Hunt jungle, finally had his hands on the one that had eluded him, the Hennessy Cognac Gold Cup.

Fittingly, it was achieved with the assistance of his stable jockey, Mick Fitzgerald, who back in the summer when a horse he was riding fell at Market Rasen, subsequently discovered that he had broken two bones in his neck and that he could have been paralysed had he taken a false step.

The Irishman, whom many suspected would retire to a media or a training career, but returned to competitive action this week, had partnered just one winner before yesterday. This was some consolation for the pain he had endured, both from the injury and that of having to watch horses he would have ridden being partnered by other jockeys.

An emotional Fitzgerald was initially too choked to speak, but when he had composed himself, he reflected: "Horses like this made the decision to come back easy. If you've got shit to ride there's no point. I've gone past that."

He added: "All these people have done all the hard work: Corky Brown, our head lad, Johnny Worrall, Sarah who looks after the horse and Nicky [Henderson]. I've just steered him. Without Nicky behind me I would never have come back. I have always respected what people say. The boss or head lad could have said 'Listen here, you old fart, you're past it; forget it'. But I haven't had any of that."

The boss now has his eyes on the King George VI Chase (normally at Kempton, but this year at Sandown), followed by the Cheltenham Gold Cup, for which Ladbrokes have cut him to 11-4 co favourite with Kicking King and Kingscliff, having been 10-1 at the start of the day.

"We've had a few close shaves in this race. Three seconds, I think," said Henderson of the gelding who was the first horse since Burrough Hill Lad (who had previously won the Gold Cup and subsequently landed the King George) 21 years ago to give weight all-round in this prestigious staying handicap chase. "But this is Newbury's showpiece race and after all these years, it's good to finally get that home win.

"He's such a beautiful horse. It doesn't necessarily mean because they're good-looking that they'll run fast, but it's the general idea. He's just got class."

He added: "You'd like to think that the King George is obviously the natural step from here. But that was a very big one he's taken today."

Trabolgan, the seven-year-old who captured last season's Royal and SunAlliance Chase at the Cheltenham Festival, was nursed along impeccably by Fitzgerald, just off the pace to conserve his energy, before asserting in the straight. He repelled François Doumen's French raider L'Ami on the run-in by two and a half lengths to claim the £54,475 first prize in the colours of the Grand National-winning owner Trevor Hemmings, at odds of 13-2.

Cornish Rebel, the Paul Nicholls-trained 11-2 favourite, finished third, a further length and three-quarters behind L'Ami (10-1) with Martin Pipe's Comply Or Die (12-1) in fourth.

Hemmings added: "I thought like most people would that my Grand National winner, Hedgehunter, was the only big one I was going to have. But Nicky's always had faith in the horse from the beginning. We bought him as a yearling, we've nurtured him all the way through, which is a lovely thing to do, and it's only his fifth run over fences."

Earlier, the Howard Johnson-trained six-year-old Inglis Drever confirmed his stature as champion staying hurdler by defeating Doumen's Baracouda again, this time in the Ballymore Properties Long Distance Hurdle, having beaten him at Cheltenham in March en route to taking the British Horseracing Board's new Order of Merit title.

Nicholls had enjoyed a treble on the first day of the meeting, and won the first two events here. Natal was particularly impressive in the opening novices' hurdle and Paddy Power and Coral make the four-year-old 20-1 for the Supreme Novices' Hurdle at Cheltenham.

But this was Henderson's day, and Fitzgerald's. "Mick struggled to get back and to do that is special for everybody. He never doubted that he would be back, and neither did any of us, really," said the trainer.


Serious bet
The stable is spot on, and Albuhera (Newbury 2.05) can improve on his recent third at Cheltenham.

Fun bet
Make the most of the icy weather with Glacial Delight (Newbury 1.00), a nice little winter warmer.