Racing: Valley Henry can thwart Marlborough's follow-up over ideal trip

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The Independent Online

Mick Fitzgerald, who could talk the hind legs off a donkey and then probably persuade it to get up and jump a few fences, will arrive at Wetherby today with a notable landmark in his sights.

The Irishman needs just two more winners to join a select band of eight jump jockeys to have ridden 1,000 winners in Britain. The first was Stan Mellor in 1971 and the latest Richard Johnson in April this year and between them came a who's who of the sport: John Francome, Richard Dunwoody, Peter Scudamore, Tony McCoy, Adrian Maguire and Peter Niven. Cork-born, Co Wexford-raised Fitzgerald, 33, has five chances to join them this afternoon. Marlborough, bidding for back-to-back Charlie Hall Chases, and Rostropovich, in the West Yorkshire Hurdle, are the highest profile of the quintet.

The Charlie Hall, a Grade 2 contest over three miles and a furlong, is named for the Tadcaster-based trainer who sent Doorknocker out to win the 1956 Champion Hurdle. The race is generally the season's first sighting of some of the best of the staying brigade over fences; it has been won in the past by Wayward Lad, Burrough Hill Lad, Forgive 'N Forget, Durham Edition, Barton Bank, One Man and See More Business.

And, of course, Marlborough himself. Twelve months ago Sir Robert Ogden's near-black gelding was given a gem of a ride by Fitzgerald, who picked him up off the floor when he was badly hampered at the sixth obstacle, let him recover his composure and balance and nursed him through the field to pounce on Hussard Collonges going to the last.

That did prove, however, Marlborough's only success of the year. After unavailingly trying to live with Best Mate in the King George VI Chase at Kempton on Boxing Day and it may be that anno Domini - at 11, he is the old man of the party today - are taking their toll. Fitzgerald, though, will have none of that, and is optimistic of a repeat success on Nicky Henderson's charge. "He's been doing very well in the build-up," he said. "I rode him work at Newbury last Sunday and he felt great; I schooled him myself on Wednesday and he was brilliant, in tip-top shape. To be honest, I really do not know what happened to him after Christmas last year. It was a fantastic effort to win the Wetherby race - we virtually got brought to a standstill twice and it was just his class which got him up to win - then he ran a career best when second to Best Mate in the King George. Unfortunately it went wrong after that, but he's come back from his summer holiday at Sicklinghall, Sir Robert's place, looking better than ever."

The ground, only gradually easing, has restricted the Charlie Hall field to six. And despite Fitzgerald's enthusiasm, the race should provide Valley Henry (2.10) with an ideal launch to his season; the eight-year-old, fourth in the latest Gold Cup, has won first time out for each of the last three seasons, is suited by small fields and the trip is perfect. If there is a horse to upset the big two, it may be Barrow Drive, one of last season's best staying novices, but he, like the other three, will have to find marked improvement to be involved.

Of Fitzgerald's other mounts, The Flyer may find his wings clipped by well-handicapped Personal Assurance (2.40) and Tom Costalot may benefit more from the run than Halexy (3.50), who can notch another for Jonjo O'Neill.

Rostropovich will have been tightened up by a recent Flat outing but may find his compatriot Pay It Forward (3.15) too resolute and the experience of Thesis (4.20) may thwart Ken'tucky. Sorry, Mick. Keep those verbal skills for Huntingdon tomorrow.

The gates are gradually clanging behind the passing of the Flat season. Newmarket signs off with a nine-race card, starting in the morning. Cohn Blue (1.55) can take the Zetland Stakes back to Pulborough and Ouija Board (3.30) the listed fillies' contest across the heath to Hamilton Road.