By Tony Elves
Back in his riding heyday the goosepimples were rising at Stratford on the Monday afternoon with the then three-day Cheltenham Festival under than 24 hours away.
Fortunately, Mick Fitzgerald was never to fall foul of the eve of Cheltenham curse that could rob any jockey of his moment in the sun with last minute injury, but he did have the pressure of riding as first jockey to Nicky Henderson and with it the expectations of riding Festival winners.
Mick passed all the tests with flying colours - ten of his 14 Festival winners for the Master of Seven Barrows and he was crowned Champion Jockey at the meeting on two occasions in 1999 and 2000.
Fitzgerald didn’t manage to etch a Champion Hurdle on his Cheltenham Festival roll of honour which lasted from 1994 through to 2006 but two of the jewels of the crown were achieved when in 1999 Call Equiname took the Queen Mother Champion Chase and See More Business landed the Cheltenham Gold Cup the following day, coincidently for an up and coming trainer called Paul Nicholls.
The memories flood back like the races took place yesterday and, hard though it was hard to narrow it down, former top jockey and Sky Sports Racing presenter Mick Fitzgerals took us through his most exhilarating moments in the saddle at the Cheltenham Festival.
RAYMYLETTE, 1994 CATHCART CHALLENGE CUP CHASE
You never forget your first Festival winner and he was a very good horse. In many ways I have to thank Richard Dunwoody as he would have ridden Raymylette and got banned along with Adrian Maguire in a fiasco at Nottingham. It meant I got to ride Remittance Man in the Champion Chase and Ryamylette in the Cathcart and it couldn’t have started worse as on the Wednesday I had put Remittance Man on the floor and it was pilot error. I was feeling pretty low and I honestly thought I was on the verge of losing the job with Nicky Henderson.
I have a lot to thank Raymylette for as when I went out to ride him, I couldn’t believe what a good jumper he was. He felt like he was pure class and he jumped brilliant and travelled really well. I can remember coming down the hill to the third last and the race was obviously on a different course on the Thursday and it was a downhill fence. I was coming to the fence on a very similar stride to Remittance Man when I put him on the floor and I had been doing some work with Yogi Breisner and he said if in doubt just sit and whereas I didn’t sit on Remittance Man I did on Raymylette.
He just flew out of my hands and was like an aeroplane taking off. Into the straight he just drifted a little right-handed and I could feel like an incessant bang bang as the wave of sound that keeps hitting you. You never really hear the crowd as you are concentrating on getting up that hill but I could feel it and he kept on strongly to beat Buckboard Bounce three quarters of a length.
It was honestly like riding your first winner as it meant so much – people say there is too much emphasis put on the Cheltenham Festival but as far as I am concerned its rubbish, there is nothing like riding a winner there. To me it didn’t matter that it was the Cathcart, it could have been like riding the winner of the Gold Cup!
CALL EQUINAME, 1999 QUEEN MOTHER CHAMPION CHASE
This race lives long in the memory. I had been offered the ride on Celibate for Charlie Mann in the Champion Chase and on the Sunday before Paul Nicholls rang me and asked me to ride Call Equiname and I said yes without even thinking. When I spoke to my agent Dave Roberts he said are you going to ring Charlie Mann as we knew he was going to go mad. I rang Charlie and he did go mad, but I told him I can’t not ride his horse as I think Call Equiname will win.
My instructions were pretty simple as he pulled himself up a bit in front and it is difficult that in a race for elite two-mile chasers you are coming down the hill and on the run to the last you have to take a pull. It was an amazing feeling and it is a gamble as if you take a pull and they get beat then you look the biggest fool on the track. I knew that’s what I had to do and when I picked him up after the last and got stuck into him, he sprinted away from Edredon Bleu and Direct Route to win by a length and three quarters.
I was delighted to ride a winner in Call Equiname on the Wednesday as I hadn’t had a winner at the Festival for four years and never mind contemplating being Champion jockey. However, I still had my best day to come as I had some really good rides on the final day and the first of those was Katarino who won the JCB Triumph Hurdle for Nicky and I knew how much that meant as stable jockey when he won. However, I had been second in Gold Cup on Rough Quest and I can remember coming into the winner’s enclosure and looking back at the winner Imperial Call and thinking, will I ever ride the winner of the Gold Cup? Thankfully for me, with See More Business I was able experience that incredible achievement.
SEE MORE BUSINESS, 1999 CHELTENHAM GOLD CUP
I had been down to school at Paul Nicholls’s two weeks before and we spoke together about putting blinkers on him. We put the blinkers on him schooling and it transformed him and then we went to Wincanton to work and he absolutely flew. I remember saying to Paul Barber and John Keatley who owned him that if he jumps at Cheltenham he will nearly win. He was flying and Paul Nicholls said he couldn’t have had him any better going into the Gold Cup.
In the race he travelled and jumped so well and there was a very hot favourite in the race in Florida Pearl. I can just remember turning down the hill and coming to jump the third last and looking across at Richard Dunwoody who was riding Florida Pearl and seeing him just squeeze for a split second and thinking he’s beat. There was no way he should have been doing anything on the favourite at that stage and I thought suddenly I can win this.
After jumping the third last and turning for home I could just see Florida Pearl start to wilt and then all I had eyes for then was the winning post. I just went head down and just drilled him over the last two fences and he winged both and just kept galloping to the line. The Gold Cup is such an amazing race and if you watch the replays and see how quickly they pull up as it is such a hard race. See More Business pulled up within about ten strides after the line and had given me everything.
That moment when you walk back past the crowd as a Gold Cup winner will never leave me – as a jockey that was the race, I wanted more than any other. I went out to ride in the Cathcart and was almost laughing having ridden my third winner of the afternoon as I just couldn’t believe what had happened and, if anything, I felt a little bit guilty coming back in because I knew as a jockey what it meant to ride a winner there and I had deprived somebody of that feeling. However, I quickly thought get a hold of yourself, as that’s why we are in this game.
MARLBOROUGH, 2000 WILLIAM HILL HANDICAP CHASE
Marlborough was another who meant so much to me as we put a lot of work into him as he was not a good jumper. Yogi Breisner, Nicky Henderson and I had worked very hard to try and get his technique better as we always thought he was a very good horse but he couldn’t jump. We spent every Wednesday in the indoor school teaching him to jump properly. It probably culminated him being the best handicapped horse to step foot on Cheltenham racecourse when he won the William Hill Handicap Chase (now Ultima) in 2000.
It was a whole season spent trying to get him to jump properly and we knew on the day that if he jumped well, he was a certainty. I had a sweet run on him, and I think he just missed one and he jumped brilliantly. He was a very good horse and he jumped badly at Wincanton then went to Newbury and got rid of me. We worked harder on him and then he won at Kempton and then he went for Racing Post Handicap there and finished second to Gloria Victis and then went to the Cheltenham Festival and it went swimmingly. When I jumped the last ditch at Cheltenham, I thought if this thing gets completes, he will win well. I took it up after the last and he won by two and a half lengths from Beau.
XENOPHON, 2003 CORAL CUP
Xenophon who I won on for Tony Martin was one of the biggest gambles of the Festival when winning the Coral Cup in 2003. Tony Martin had rung me on a Sunday morning and he said will you come over to Leopardstown and ride a horse for me in the Pierse Hurdle which took place in January. I said yes of course I will, and I didn’t ask him what it was and thought if Tony wants me to go then I am going.
Off I went and there were 28 runners in the race. Leopardstown on the inside track is tight and I asked for my instructions of a horse that has only had three runs over hurdles. Tony said drop him right in, and I said really?
He said drop him right in nearer last than first and try not to get there too soon. When I jumped on Xenophon, he felt like an aeroplane going to post and I couldn’t believe it. Two out at Leopardstown literally at the bottom of the hill I couldn’t believe how well he was going it was honestly like he had just jumped in. Turning into the straight I jumped the last half a length down and he went away from them and won two lengths. Tony Martin said what do you think about Cheltenham, I said it’s a certainty.
It was the Coral Cup the horse was going for and the boss, Nicky Henderson, had a couple of entries. I had never done it before, but I begged Nicky to let me off for the race as this horse won’t get beat. Xenophon was light on experience and Nicky quite rightly pointed that out, but I told him again this horse won’t get beat and he rang me and said I could ride. He was 8-1 and he went off 4-1 and I had never seen Tony more nervous. I said to him what do you think, and he asked me what I thought - I wasn’t in a rush to be anywhere until the last. Xenophon basically travelled in second gear and came down the hill and I got him to miss the second last as if he had of winged it, he would have been in front. He met the final hurdle perfectly and sprinted away - that was a hell of a feeling.
FONDMORT, 2006 RYANAIR CHASE
Fondmort was a real stable favourite and it was really uplifting when we won the Ryanair Chase with him in 2006. You could set your clock by him around Cheltenham and if you have a horse that likes the track that much it counts for an awful lot. He was never the best horse and was placed in a King George but no superstar.
However, he was so much better around Cheltenham than he was anywhere else and for him to have his day at the Cheltenham Festival meant so much to everyone concerned – to Vicky who looked after him, Bill Brown who owned him, for Nicky Henderson, and unashamedly for me as I felt that horse deserved that. He was a proper gentleman of a horse and a pleasure to do anything with and one of those horses you could rely on.
The race went like clockwork. He travelled nicely like he always did, and he was such a good jumper you were making ground at every obstacle. It was a case of desperation in the finish, but he never looked like getting caught and he held on by a length and a quarter from Lacdoudal. It was a hell of a buzz as he had finished second in the race the previous year to Thisthatandtother and had just been run out of it close home and it was gutting really. You sometimes think they are never going to get another chance as the Cheltenham Festival is so competitive, but this was his day.