Racing: Sharp Fitzgerald has plenty of nerve

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The Independent Online
IT TAKES a brave man to jump the last flight in Europe's richest handicap hurdle and then count to ten before releasing the brakes, but Mick Fitzgerald's steely nerve held here yesterday as he won the Tote Gold Trophy on the 10-1 shot Sharpical.

The six-year-old is a horse whose talent has in the past seemed to exceed his enthusiasm; the trick with the type is to lead at the last possible moment - and thus avoid the possibility of a battle to the line - and Fitzgerald carried out the strategy virtually to perfection.

By the time Sharpical's blinkered head appeared in the firing line two hurdles from home it was apparent that he was travelling better than anything else, but the man on top did not send him past the long-time leader Kerawi until more than half-way up the run-in.

And such were his reserves that he passed the post three lengths to the good. Kerawi ran on stoutly to maintain second place, a length and a half in front of the best of the five Irish raiders, Tidjani, with Nahrawali fourth, Advocat fifth and Native-Darrig sixth. Fitzgerald said: "I was always exactly where I wanted to be and I never had a moment's worry."

The well-backed 3-1 favourite Graphic Equaliser, easy winner of the Ladbroke at Leopardstown last month - when Sharpical finished sixth after a last- flight blunder - on softer ground than yesterday's drying conditions, could beat only two of his 13 rivals, one of which, Mr Percy, broke a blood vessel.

It was a first victory in the Trophy for both Fitzgerald and Nick Henderson, whose Lambourn yard is only 15 miles from the course. And the trainer's first plaudits were for his stable jockey. "That was a dream of a ride," he said, "you'll hardly see better all season. The horse is one of the best workers we've got at home and has got loads of ability, but he doesn't always finish the job off. It's not that he's wholly ungenuine, but we put blinkers on him just to get that last bit done.

"He wore them for the first time in Ireland, and he was right there when he made that mistake. I'm not saying he would have won then, but I'm sure he would have been second, and at 6lb better off we were weighted to beat Graphic Equaliser today. Perhaps not quite so easily, but we did have home advantage this time."

Last year's Tote Gold Trophy winner Make A Stand famously went on to glory in the Champion Hurdle. Yesterday's first two hold the Cheltenham entry; Sharpical (reduced from 50-1 to 14-1 by the Tote) tentatively and Kerawi, who was conceding 11lb to the winner, as a definite contender.

If Sharpical is one who shines on the gallops (and now, it must be said, in his races), Ask Tom would not, according to his trainer Tom Tate, "give you the time of day at home". But the big nine-year-old, sidelined by a bug since December, made it clear he has retained all the ability he reserves for the track with a winning reappearance in the Game Spirit Chase.

Runner-up in the Queen Mother Champion Chase last year, he is now clear favourite to go one better this time, but just as eye-catching was the performance of the novice Kadastrof in the runner-up spot. The tough little chestnut led Ask Tom until four out and chased him all the way to the line to be beaten only a length and a quarter with Viking Flagship nine lengths adrift. It was a fine trial for the Arkle Trophy - the two-mile novice chasers' championship at the Cheltenham Festival. Ladbrokes cut Ask Tom to 2-1 from 3-1 for the Champion Chase while he is 3-1 with Coral. Kadastrof is 6-1 for the Arkle.

Zaralaska resurrected his Cheltenham prospects with a win in the Coombe Novices' Hurdle. Coral cut his Champion Hurdle odds from 50-1 to 25-1 but he is more likely to run in the Supreme Novices' Hurdle at the Festival.

lDean Gallagher was questioned by the stewards at Market Rasen over the running of a horse, but the jockey, arrested last month as part of an inquiry into race fixing, was cleared of any wrongdoing. The stewards looked into the running of Sharp Command who, in the 3.45, stayed on to finish fourth, having appeared to be tenderly ridden for much of the race.