Magazine article The Spectator

View from the Saddle

Magazine article The Spectator

View from the Saddle

Article excerpt

Former champion jockey Bob Davies once walked into the paddock and asked the trainer of the horse he was about to ride over three miles and 24 stiff fences, 'Does he jump?' Back came the reply: 'That's what you're here to find out.'

'When they say that to you, ' Mick Fitzgerald told me on Sunday, 'then you know you are in trouble.' We were talking at a Cheltenham Literary Festival lunch to promote his new book, The Cheltenham World of Jump Racing (Racing Post, £25), and with the jump season proper starting at Cheltenham this weekend there could not have been a better time to hear the views of a man who rode that undulating course as well as anyone has ever done.

Researching a book on the history of the Cheltenham Festival - the racing one, that is - I have been struck by the differing views on how that should be done. Conor O'Dwyer, who rode both Imperial Call and War of Attrition to victory in the Gold Cup, stuck middle to outer in the field, in the belief that everything happens so fast at the Festival that if you are on the inside you can be brought down or impeded. On the outer you may go further but should be able to maintain momentum.

Mick pointed to the example of former champion Richard Dunwoody: 'When he rode anywhere else it was as if his inside leg had a hook on it that ran along the inside rail. But when it got to Cheltenham you would predominantly find Woody on the middle to outer because he had that worry about horses coming back to you once they haven't been good enough up front or there were traffic problems.'

On the other hand, said Mick, Charlie Swan, who was eight times champion in Ireland, very rarely left the rails, usually reckoning he was riding the best horse in the race. 'In the end it depends on the horse . . .

if you are riding a horse with a lot of speed, tactically you can go where you want. Inside or outside, you will get the breaks. If you have to think about going into a gap at Cheltenham the gap has closed and you are too late.'

He has produced a sumptuous book with the aid of Sean Magee. The action photographs are superb. You simply won't see greater athleticism than the shot of Binocular jumping the last in the 2010 Champion Hurdle nor a more heartwarming sight than Denman and Kauto Star enjoying themselves together on their summer holiday.

And there are weighing-room insights of the kind you would expect from the most articulate jockey we have enjoyed in decades, most with rather more elegance than the description he quotes from Jonjo O'Neill's Gold Cup win on Dawn Run: 'We went to the first like shit off a shovel. …

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