15 December 2002

Fitzgerald’s urgings conjure an epic last-fence jump to seal victory in Cheltenham’s big race

When belief becomes conviction there is no limit to what man and horse can do. All season no partnership will be as certain of what they were going to do at the last fence as Mick Fitzgerald and Fondmort in the Tripleprint Gold Cup at Cheltenham.

It was only at the second-last that Fondmort and Foly Pleasant had taken control from Wave Rock; only halfway to the final fence that Fondmort forged on. Now there was just one obstacle looming, one more leap needed. Even after two and a quarter miles it was a good flat-on gallop but Fitzgerald looked out between Fondmort’s ears and made an instant decision. To go for it.

Over the years, Fitzgerald has developed a method of clamped-leg compulsion by which he transfers the forward thrust of his torso back down the line of the horse’s quarters to give the perfect boost on take-off. Now Fondmort was a full six strides from that final fence but Fitzgerald clamped down and into the horse beneath. He pumped forward with increasing tempo. He was not just sure of his take-off stride. He was certain.

Fondmort is not the biggest horse in training but none is better balanced than he. As Fitzgerald asked, he answered: a brilliant soaring leap of which any springbok would be proud. I had been standing right by the fence with top show jumper Stephen Hadley, no stranger to launching a horse towards the stratosphere. There was eloquence in Stephen’s whistled exhalation. “Did you see that?” he said.

It was the jump that clinched it but it had been the weight, or the lack of it, that had put Fondmort there. He was set to carry just 10st 5lb yesterday. Foly Pleasant had 11st 3lb and the Thomas Pink Gold Cup winner, Cyfor Malta, a hefty 11st 12lb. Fondmort may have lost his way a little last spring but at Christmas time he looked the most brilliant novice around. Yesterday was promise fulfilled.

But it is not carping to admit that it was only Fondmort’s jumping that was exceptional. Foly Pleasant ran an admirable race in second, Youlneverwalkalone (itreallyisnamed

likethat) kept on to be third after fencing moderately at the back of the field, and poor Cyfor Malta was a desperately tired horse who could hardly raise a gallop up the run-in.

This is damning with faint praise and sadly we are about to give the same treatment to Rooster Booster. Poor old Rooster Booster. Yesterday’s Victor Chandler Bula Hurdle was the grey’s third consecutive success this season and now makes him clear favourite for the Champion Hurdle back here in March. Yet the received wisdom will not shift that the horse that won last year’s County Hurdle “is only a handicapper” and that it would have to be a moderate Champion Hurdle for him to win it.

But Rooster Booster does not read the papers. He just has to attack the hurdles ahead of him and yesterday he was continuing to do it in some style. The only argument he might have had was with Richard Johnson for attacking quite so soon. For the second-last on this Cheltenham track is only a short way down the final hill and as Rooster Booster powered past the leader Landing Light at this flight, Johnson found himself stranded in front a full half-mile from home.

Worse still, he had Tony McCoy on Marble Arch at the head of his pursuers, Ruby Walsh and Champion Hurdler Hors La Loi III having taken the most spectacular (and mercifully unhurtful) of head-over-heels falls at that penultimate hurdle. All the way from the last turn towards that final flight Rooster Booster kept his hunters at bay. Johnson kept pushing but right in the wings, certainty escaped. One of Rooster Booster’s grey ears cocked forward, the take-off stride was not there, Johnson left him to it, the jump was not clean. The momentum carried them through but for a horrid moment Richard’s urgings upset their balance. McCoy and Marble Arch tried to close but the doubters could not have their day. Rooster bounded home once more.

So too did McCoy. He had started the day with two reverses at the hands of the increasingly inspirational Walsh, outgunned in the first race, unseated in the second. A piece of absolutely furious determination got Don Fernando past Nas Na Riogh and the French horse, Lilium de Cotte, in the third but it will be his closing duel with Walsh in the last race of all that will be etched long in the memory.

This time it was Walsh who found himself in front down the hill with McCoy once again the stalker. Walsh was on the talented chaser Ad Hoc, who has just reverted successfully to hurdles. McCoy was on the grey, Iris’s Gift, who had won both his races this season but who already needed hard driving when Ad Hoc seemed to be cruising round the final turn.

Somehow McCoy kept him in it, and the belief in Ad Hoc began to drain a little. Not much in it after the last, Ad Hoc going just the better. A hundred yards and both jockeys are desperate. Then 30 yards out McCoy does something you rarely see. For three strides he throws his weight so hard forward with his horse that his normally clamped right leg thrusts back with the effort. It was an act of raw, devouring possession. There was a winning post coming and it belonged to him. Iris’s Gift stuck his grey neck out and won it.

Man and horse in extremis, conviction in every line.

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