Racing: Fitzgerald's skill speaks volumes

The rider of See More Business delivers words and winners with equal rapidity.
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AT 3.50 YESTERDAY afternoon, there were more cameras, microphones and reporters crowded around Mick Fitzgerald than even he could handle. Well, almost. "I'm sorry, but I've got to go and get ready for the next race," he said, as one last radio crew tried their luck. Fitzgerald walked three paces towards the weighing room - and then stopped to do another interview.

Not for nothing is he one of the racing media's favourite jockeys. Fitzgerald not only talks, he talks unusually well, almost as well, in fact, as he rides racehorses. Until this week, he had ridden just two Festival winners, and the most recent of those was in 1995. In the space of three days, though, he has added four more, three of them in championship events, and marked himself out, a little like Walter Swinburn once did on the Flat, as the man to have on your side in the big races.

Yet just a few years ago, he was so disappointed by the progress of his career that he was about to try his luck in New Zealand instead. It would have been a serious loss to the punters who collected this week after copybook rides in the Queen Mother Champion Chase, Triumph Hurdle and Gold Cup.

All three were presented to win their races with split-second precision. Fitzgerald was once given the tongue-in-cheek nickname of "the bank robber", because he seemed to hold everything up, but while he may not ride from the front as often at Tony McCoy, he has the breadth of ability to do so when required. And anyway, his preferred style seems be working rather well just now.

Fitzgerald has now won two of jump racing's three great prizes, with only the Champion Hurdle left to add to the Gold Cup and the Grand National, which he won on Rough Quest in 1996. It was in the aftermath of that victory that he produced what will probably remain his most famous sound bite, when he said that "sex is an anticlimax after that". It was a spur-of- the-moment remark, and one which he now admits he regrets. These days, he tries to think a little harder before he speaks, though there is thankfully little sign of his speaking any less.

Even jockeys of the quality of Peter Scudamore and John Francome did not complete the Big Three, and Fitzgerald's wait could be a long one. Then again, it could be just 12 months, given the immense authority of Katarino's success in the Triumph Hurdle yesterday.

The record of Triumph winners in the Champion is not encouraging, but Katarino - thanks in part to his jockey - did not seem to have the gruelling experience of Cheltenham which so often seems to leave its mark on winners of the race. Fitzgerald was pushing as they came down the hill, but by the time he reached the final flight, Katarino was travelling beautifully, and he quickened clear to win by nine lengths. Coral were so impressed that they offered just 10-1 for next year's Champion Hurdle, although Ladbrokes were more realistic with a quote of 20-1. The latter make Istabraq 7-4 to take his third hurdling crown next year, with those other Festival winners Hors La Loi III on 7-1 and Barton on 10-1.

Fitzgerald dominated the final day of the Festival, ending it with a treble and the London Clubs Trophy for the meeting's leading jockey to put in the back of the car. The only worthwhile prize that escaped him yesterday was the Stayers' Hurdle, which fell to the withering late run of Anzum, a 40-1 shot. Le Coudray, another of Ireland's strong team, seemed to have the race won at the bottom of the hill, but even Charlie Swan's sternest efforts could not repel Richard Johnson as he recorded his first ever Festival winner.

The afternoon, though, belonged to the talkative jockey from Cork, whose most telling comment came as he finally broke free of the media scrum to change his silks. "I feel greedy," he said, "but I still want more."

LONDON CLUBS TROPHY FOR THE LEADING JOCKEY AT THE CHELTENHAM FESTIVAL: FINAL PLACINGS: 4 wins M A Fitzgerald; 2 wins A P McCoy, N.Williamson; 1 win C F Swan, Mr B Gibson, L Wyer, J Tizzard, F M Berry, P Carberry, Mr A Martin, B Powell, R Johnson, Mr B Pollock, J R Barry, T J Murphy.