MICK FITZGERALD will always miss riding at the Cheltenham Festival.
The reality of the ex-jockey’s retirement from the saddle has long since been accepted – but time does not dull the memories of his finest wins.
It’s 20 years since See More Business gave him the greatest of them all when victorious in the Gold Cup.
This week he will be back at the track as part of the ITV team covering the excitement and drama on the stage where he returned to the winners’ enclosure triumphant on 14 occasions.
Three of those came on the final day of the 1999 Festival. He had already won the Grand National three years earlier on Rough Quest runner-up behind Imperial Call in the Gold Cup the previous month.
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But it wasn’t until he won Cheltenham’s biggest prize that he felt he had arrived in jump racing’s big time.
Fitzgerald, 48, smiled: “When I finished second on Rough Quest I remember walking in and listening to the roar Imperial Call got – Conor O’ Dwyer was beaming from ear to ear.
“I can remember thinking how jealous I was. I wanted that.
“I’ve got a picture in my office of me walking into the winners’ enclosure on See More Business punching the air.
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“It’s just sheer raw emotion. When you win a Gold Cup you feel like you’ve made it.”
Fitzgerald went into the race in top form having won the Champion Chase for Paul Nicholls on Call Equiname the previous day and the Triumph Hurdle on Katarino. The same cannot be said of his big-race ride.
See More Business had been beaten into third by Cyfor Malta and Go Ballistic in the Cotswold Chase in his prep race prompting Nicholls’ stable jockey Joe TIzzard to jump ship on to Double Thriller.
Fitzgerald got the call and he well remembers his first sit on his Gold Cup hero but the first impression was not a good one.
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He said: “I went to school him and he was horrible. He was small and narrow. He brushed his way through the first two schooling fences, he was sort of clumsy. But when we went to the last, a ditch, he was absolutely foot perfect. I just thought ‘this horse is taking the mickey’.
“They stuck some shades on him to wake him up a bit and he just went ‘whoosh’ – the difference was chalk and cheese.
“The blinkers were the key. They concentrated his energy on one little area not everything else going on around him. I couldn’t believe how easily he went through the race. When you ride in the Gold Cup it doesn’t feel like a 3m2f race because you go such an end-to-end gallop.
“There’s no let up. That’s why a lot of horses get found out stamina-wise.
“He was the horse of a lifetime and I was very lucky to ride him during his best years.
“Nobody will ever take that off me I’ve still got the Cup at home and it’s one of my prized possessions.
“I rode a treble on the day and I can honestly remember walking back into the changing room and being a little bit embarrassed.
“I know what it means to ride a winner at the Festival and for a second I thought somebody else deserves a chance to feel what this is like.
“Then I thought ‘don’t be a d**k’. In this game it’s good to be greedy.”
Even so, the next year loyalty was the over-riding emotion.
Fitzgerald could have ridden Gold Cup winner Looks Like Trouble but deserting See More Business was never going to be easy even with the fast ground counting against him.
Victory on Bacchanal for his boss Nicky Henderson in the Stayers’ Hurdle the following season meant only the Champion Hurdle was missing from a full-set of Cheltenham’s championship prizes.
Riding for the trainer who has now won hurdling’s greatest prize more often than anyone he was always going to have a chance of completing the Festival full house.
Fate has never been more fickle than in the world of National Hunt Racing. After finishing third on both Blue Royal and Afsoun in a dozen tries to land the Champion Hurdle his career was finished by a heavy fall in the 2008 Grand National.
Fitzgerald said: “You miss the glory days. You don’t miss the sh***y days sat in a hospital waiting room knowing you’ve broken something but I do miss walking out into that parade ring at Cheltenham to ride a fancied horse. There’s nothing like it.”