Very few people have romped home with the Cheltenham Gold Cup, racing’s most treasured piece of precious metal, but when they do, where do they keep it? “It’s at home, underneath my pillow, just in case anyone tries to take it,’’ says former jockey Mick Fitzgerald, talking about his very own Cheltenham Gold Cup, which he won on board See More Business in 1999. Every year, they produce a new cup, so it’s not as if he’s refusing to return it.
“It’s everything. That cup signifies a dream come true,” he says. “When I was a boy watching racing, listening to Peter O’Sullevan, it was a trophy I wanted more than any other.’’
“Fitzy” won around 40 big races, including the Grand National, but to his mind, the Cheltenham Festival, at which he was twice top jockey, has no equal.
“It’s our Olympics, but luckily for us we have it every year. It doesn’t always boil down to prize money – it’s pride, bragging rights, and being able to say that I’ve ridden a winner at Cheltenham, or owned or trained a winner.’’
Having retired from racing in 2008, Mick’s expert opinion, mixed with his gracious demeanour and his ability not to let his success give him a big head, sees him popping up as a regular tipster, but he has a word of warning for those banking on the big names at this year’s festival.
“There are so many short favourites, but all you have to do is get out your form book from last year’s festival, and from the year before and all the way back to the year dot, to see how many favourites have won. It makes you realise that it isn’t straightforward, and that’s what makes Cheltenham so special.’’
Every punter is looking for a “nap”, which is as close as you can get to a sure thing, but Mick isn’t seeing one in the big race itself, the three-mile, two-and-a-half-furlong Cheltenham Gold Cup on Friday. And that includes the favourite, Bobs Worth, despite his record of being undefeated at Cheltenham and Mick’s love of a horse that can handle a left-handed track.
“He was a novice last year and he won a very impressive Hennessy Gold Cup carrying plenty of weight, but he hasn’t done it yet at grade one level, so he will have doubters until he does. However, he is on the up, and for that reason he is ahead in the market.’’
So, if Bobs Worth isn’t a “nap”, which horse is? Hurricane Fly in Tuesday’s Champion Hurdle? “No, to be honest. Sprinter Sacre in the Queen Mother Champion Chase [on Wednesday] is the nap, but he’s no price. He is very short.’’
Instead, like any good tipster should, Mick looks for the best chance at the best price. After all, he is handing out racing tips, not free hugs.
Fitzy knows his onions, that’s for sure, but the Cheltenham Festival connects much more with his heart than his head or his bank balance.
“The atmosphere is like no other. For me, as a jockey, it was the only time I actually took notice of the crowd and the noise. That first race on the first day when the starter lets them go – the roar is almost a roar of relief from the punters, as they have waited for that moment. The sound travels down the track and hits you as you are galloping towards the first obstacle.’’ And it’s a hoo-ha well oiled by a strong Irish contingent, who overrun Cheltenham during this St Patrick’s period.
The lubricated thousands who have made the pilgrimage in recent times have simply been spoilt, with three back-to-back wins for Best Mate and epic battles between Kauto Star and Denman. But as far as Mick is concerned, there is only one true King of Cheltenham.
“Arkle, no contest.’’ The gelding, often referred to as “Himself ”, won three Gold Cups on the bounce from 1964 to 1966. “He was the greatest jumps horse of all time,” says Mick. “It’s very hard to equate generations, but Arkle was a horse all on his own. In his day there were two standards of races… ones with him, and ones without.’’
Watch the Cheltenham Festival – Tuesday-Friday from 12:35pm on C4