Racing: Sybillin signals stable condition: The virus which suffocated Jimmy FitzGerald's yard has receded but the trainer is careful not to take his standard bearer for granted

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WHILE Jimmy FitzGerald and his virus- stricken Malton stable have been out of sight for much of the last two seasons, the man himself has hardly been going out of his mind.

Almost 25 years as a trainer have taught FitzGerald that when the virus comes, a sense of patience must accompany it. 'There's nothing you can do about it,' he said yesterday. 'Nothing at all.'

FitzGerald, though, may have been taking this impassiveness to an unusual level at the weekend, when he chose to indulge his passion for shooting rather than supervise Sybillin's challenge in the Victor Chandler Chase at Ascot.

The morning after his gelding's emphatic victory, the Irishman was talking of a memorable 24 hours, though the main source of his elation was unclear. 'It was the best day for some time,' he said. 'The wind was good and the pheasants were going like bullets.'

Good days have been a rare commodity for FitzGerald since disease settled at Norton Grange 18 months ago. A yard that became used to sending out Cheltenham Festival winners like Forgive 'N Forget and Canny Danny in the early 1980s struggled to provide runners at all. From a high of 73 winners six years ago, the stable reached its lowest ebb of 33 successes last season.

But from the moment the 1992- 1993 campaign began FitzGerald knew the worst was over. 'We checked them all before they came in for this season and they were all right,' he said. 'At last I can say the horses are healthy again.'

And that means a similarly flourishing place for FitzGerald in the trainers' championship. Sybillin's win on Saturday, coupled with the success of Gris Et Violet at Newcastle, took his score to 28 for the season and fifth place in the table for win prizemoney.

Perhaps FitzGerald's greatest achievements as a trainer have been to upgrade hurdlers like Danish Flight, the Arkle Chase victor of 1988, and Uncle Ernie, a leading aspirant for the Queen Mother Champion Chase, into steeplechasers of high standing.

Sybillin's career has many parallels with that of Uncle Ernie. Both possess what purists would call Flat pedigrees, both actually ran and won on the level, and both have a style of running which has a formidable finishing kick as its most potent component. Where they start to diverge is in the trainer's mind. He considers Sybillin to have the edge in raw talent.

'Ernie won on the Flat and now he's taken to jumping fences like a bird, but Sybillin could be the best,' he said. 'He's always been a very good jumper, and he's loved it. The first time I ever schooled him, he jumped like a buck.'

FitzGerald has prepared champions, most notably Forgive 'N Forget, the 1985 Gold Cup winner, and while he considers Sybillin may reach the highest rank in his sphere, he refuses to look too far ahead. He knows the attrition rate of National Hunt combatants makes the planning of long-term programmes as hopeful as a gladiator taking out a pension plan.

The agenda at the moment stretches no further than the Nottingham's Champion Chase next month and then the Arkle Chase at the Festival. 'Everything has to go right with these horses, the luck has to stay with them,' FitzGerald said. 'But I do think he's a very good horse over jumps, as good as I've ever had, at two miles anyway.'

This assessment means the seven-year-old's owner, the Marquesa de Moratalla, can look forward to a bountiful Cheltenham, as she already has a Festival favourite in The Fellow.

In the meantime, FitzGerald has some loose ends to clear up following the financial collapse of another of his owners, Tony Budge. His departure has thrown into doubt the future of animals such as Sunset Rock, High Padre, Native Mission and Uncle Ernie himself.

The trainer's response has been to flourish his own wallet in an effort to keep the Budge runners. 'I think the boss has bought all the horses and hopefully he'll find owners for them to stay in the yard,' Mark Dwyer, the Norton Grange stable jockey, said. 'It shouldn't affect me at all and I hope it doesn't affect the boss.'

Given FitzGerald's leaning towards the phlegmatic, Dwyer is likely to get his wish.

(Photograph omitted)