Racing: Talent to bridge generation gap: New faces for '94: Mick Fitzgerald, of growing repute in jump racing, will find pole position well within his compass. Greg Wood reports

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The Independent Online
Ron Hodges, Gerald Ham, Jackie Retter, and now Nick Henderson. Mick Fitzgerald's recent progress through yards of increasing stature to become stable jockey at one of the country's finest might appear smooth, almost predestined. But not to Fitzgerald.

'It certainly didn't feel like that at the time,' he says. 'For the first two years it was like the compass had gone wrong, I never really knew which direction I was heading in.'

Fitzgerald, now 23, had been riding ponies and showjumpers for five years when, at the age of 14, a part-time job with Richard Lester, a small trainer in County Wexford, 'sent everything else out of the window'. A Flat apprenticeship followed, and then a move to Britain when increasing weight forced a switch to the winter code.

Clearly worth his claim, Fitzgerald was named champion conditional jockey by his fellow riders in 1993, and had started the difficult transition to the senior ranks when events beyond his control finally mapped out his course. Richard Dunwoody's move to Martin Pipe in Somerset left Nick Henderson in need of a retained rider for his high- class string.

'I looked at the established jockeys,' Henderson said, 'but it seemed the right time to go for a rising star. In fairness there was only one person, Mick was always in the back of my mind. He's a horseman, and nobody can ever make a jockey without starting that way. You can probably learn to be a jockey, but you can't learn to be a horseman, it's natural,' the trainer added.

Fitzgerald's instinct for a horse's strengths and frailties was elegantly demonstrated at Ascot last month. Billy Bathgate is talented but, as Henderson admits, 'not the most straightforward horse in the country'. Well- documented problems with breathing, broken blood vessels and sketchy jumping did not look encouraging over Ascot's solid fences, and he was sent off at 7-1 in a five-runner field for the Frogmore Handicap Chase.

Yet Fitzgerald soon had Billy Bathgate settled and jumping well, and his mount's confidence grew with each fence. They cantered past the hot favourite, Wonder Man, going to the second-last and won by 15 lengths. Most importantly, thanks to Fitzgerald's sympathetic assistance, Billy Bathgate clearly enjoyed the experience, essential for a horse who might by now associate racing with falls and painful breathlessness. The same horse could reward the jockey with a first major success of the new year in the Victor Chandler Chase, again at Ascot, on Saturday week.

The success offered welcome reassurance that Adrian Maguire is not the only young jump jockey with outstanding talent, simply the only one with outstanding opportunities.

Fitzgerald's new job has started to address the imbalance, and, though Dunwoody still takes occasional rides and Jamie Osborne is established on Henderson's stable star, Travado, Fitzgerald knows that 'in a year or two's time I could be riding them all. That's my aim, and when a horse like Travado comes through the ranks I'd like to think I'm perfectly able to do the job.'

It is a sign that Fitzgerald has arrived that he can say 'when' rather than 'if'. Given Henderson's excellent record at Cheltenham in March, the jockey's first Festival winner is surely also be a question of patience rather than providence. 'I was second there last year on Smartie Express in the Mildmay of Flete,' he said. 'I led approaching the last and got collared up the hill. I was absolutely gutted, it took several days to sink in that I'd done everything that I could and got beaten by a better horse.'

Fitzgerald learned from the experience, as he tries to do after every ride. 'I'm very self- critical, almost to the extreme. I'll watch videos several times over, picking bones out of little things, a length here and there I might have saved.'

Talent, dedication and now, above all, opportunity. Adrian Maguire may still be clear of the young generation of jockeys but one, at least, is starting to close the gap.

(Photograph omitted)