Swapping a whip for a microphone

Bill Esdaile
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IT’S been five years since Mick Fitzgerald was forced to retire from the saddle on medical grounds and, on the eve of the Cheltenham Festival, the 42-year-old still misses the buzz of life in the weighing-room.

“It took me some time to realise there’s more to life than racing when it all ended,” recalls the Grand National and Gold Cup-winning jockey. “However, when it’s something you’ve dreamt about doing from early childhood, and riding was all you ever wanted to do, it sure does rip your insides out.”

Fitzgerald admits that returning to Cheltenham the year after he hung up his riding boots was really tough. “I left the course that night in tears,” he remembers. “I never managed to win a Champion Hurdle for Nicky Henderson in the 16 years I was with him and it was so painful watching Punjabi, a horse I could have ridden, land the big Festival prize I never won."

Yet the 14-time Cheltenham Festival winning jockey will return to Prestbury Park tomorrow with a grin on his face having landed what he describes as his dream job as part of the new Channel 4 Racing team. “I have to pinch myself every week,” he confesses. “Yes, I may not be riding anymore, but I’m still getting in my car and driving to places like Cheltenham, Ascot, Aintree and York to watch the very best racing."

Looking ahead to this week, Fitzgerald warns that the ground is likely to be “as soft as it’s been at the Festival for a long time”, and urges punters to look for horses with previous form at Cheltenham. “I cannot overestimate the importance of proven form at the track. You see it year after year when horses that have been running badly in the winter come back to their best in March. Although, we’re not going to get the normal good ground this time.”

Fitzgerald’s former employer Henderson saddles two of the shortest-priced favourites of the week tomorrow in the shape of My Tent Or Yours in the Stan James Supreme Novices’ Hurdle and Simonsig in the Racing Post Arkle, but neither will be carrying his cash.

“I think they’ll both win, but the last thing you want to do on the opening day is blow your bank on a couple of short ones, however good they look. My Tent Or Yours was brilliant at Newbury, but this is a completely different test,” he says.

As for Simonsig, Fitzgerald recalls a conversation from earlier in the season with Henderson about the dashing grey. “I asked Nicky if he thought Simonsig could win or get placed in the Champion Hurdle. He had no doubt that he could win – which tells you all you need to know.”

Bookmakers will be running for cover if My Tent Or Yours wins the opener, which makes Ladbrokes’ offer for the Arkle even more appealing. In short, you can back Simonsig with them and if he gets beaten, they will give you your money back up to £25.

Even though there are only nine runners in tomorrow’s Champion Hurdle, Henderson is responsible for three of them and has the chance to land the race for a sixth time. However, Fitzgerald expressed concerns about the negative vibes surrounding Grandouet, the shortest-priced of the trio in the betting.

“You’d have to be worried as the vibes haven’t been great over the last few weeks,” says the former Seven Barrows stable jockey. “He’s had a well-documented setback and Nicky probably wishes he had a couple more weeks. Hurricane Fly will be hard to beat, as he seems back to his best.”

Ruby Walsh has apparently found it very hard to hide his enthusiasm for Neptune Investment Novices’ Hurdle favourite Pont Alexandre on the Festival preview circuit and Fitzgerald thinks he could be the real deal. “Ruby knows when he’s got a good one and who am I to disagree with him? He’s got more trophies in his house than doors!”

While on the subject of quality jockeys, Fitzgerald urges anyone betting on races this week involving amateur pilots to stick with the best. “In a race like the National Hunt Chase, the top amateurs like Derek O’Connor and Jamie Codd will have been offered five or six rides in the race, so you should sit up and take notice when you see who they will be riding.”

Fitzgerald reckons Wishfull Thinking might be a decent each-way bet against Sprinter Sacre. “His jockey ‘Dickie’ Johnson is the meanest guy in the weighing room and you can be sure he’ll have worked out how much he could get for finishing second and will know already what seven per cent of £78,000 is.”

Dynaste has now been confirmed for the Jewson, despite being the ante-post favourite for the RSA since November, but Fitzgerald doesn’t think it matters which race he runs in. “He just seems to be miles better than all the others and I think he’ll win,” says the two-time leading Cheltenham Festival jockey.

The Ladbrokes World Hurdle is wide open this year, with Big Buck’s sadly missing, and Fitzgerald thinks Oscar Whisky may struggle to stay on soft ground. “He’s a two-and-a-half miler really and Dickie Johnson said that Reve De Sivola was suffering from a foot abscess last time, so he should be able to confirm the form,” he says.

As for the Betfred Cheltenham Gold Cup, it’s no surprise that Fitzgerald reckons the prize will be heading back to Seven Barrows again, thanks to either Bobs Worth or Long Run.

“This has been the target for Bobs Worth all along and I wouldn’t be worried about him not having a prep run,” he stresses. “Nicky Henderson has trained more Cheltenham winners than anyone else. He knows what he’s doing.

“He’s still a short price, though, and I’d be more interested in having an each-way bet on Long Run,” he adds. “He’s never been out of the first three in his life and I don’t think that will change on Friday.”

Fitzgerald has been part of some spectacular action at Prestbury Park over the years and he, like the rest of us, can’t wait for that famous roar at 1.30pm tomorrow afternoon.