MICK Fitzgerald said the Grand National is 'better than sex' but his new job commentating feels good too, writes Martin Hannan
THE FIRST FENCE of the Grand National trips up a lot of horses. The second fence doesn't usually do so. Unfortunately for Mick Fitzgerald, on April 5 last year, his mount L'Ami was the exception to the norm and did not negotiate that second obstacle. In the ensuing fall, the Irish jockey damaged his neck vertebrae and spinal discs to such an extent that his glittering career was over at the age of 37.
That career included his most memorable moment when Fitzgerald booted home Rough Quest to win the National in 1996. Now set to act as a pundit for the BBC at Aintree next week, Fitzgerald is uniquely placed among commentators to describe the agony and ecstasy of riding in the world's most famous race.
"Highs and lows – that sums up the National for me," said Fitzgerald. "As far as I'm concerned it has always been the world's greatest horse race and that view hasn't changed despite the fact that I was seriously injured in the race last year."
Though there had been rumours of his retirement, and indeed he had taken a long lay off after breaking his neck in a fall at Market Rasen in 2005, Fitzgerald was enjoying an outstanding season until the National, having ridden 71 winners, most of them for trainer Nicky Henderson. But the surgeon's diagnosis was brutally frank – another fall and Fitzgerald might well be paralysed, and with wife Chloe and two young children to think of, the man from Co Cork called it a day.
"There is no doubt I would have carried on," he said. "I had no intention of giving up, not least because Nicky Henderson's team was in such good form, and you can see from the season he's now having that I had good reason to want to carry on."
His position as stable jockey to Henderson guaranteed Fitzgerald some fine horses to ride, but his talents were equal to the task.
Fitzgerald is one of very few jockeys in recent times to have achieved the Gold Cup-Grand National double, having won the former aboard See More Business in 1999. He had four winners at the Festival that year and four more in 2000, with his career total of 18 Festival winners right up there with the very best – and the likes of Tony McCoy, Richard Johnson, John Francome and Peter Scudamore never won the National.
Expect Fitzgerald to give an insider's view of what life will be like for the jockeys next Saturday, especially in the weighing room where, until his retirement, he was one of the most respected riders around.
"The race itself is massive and all the jockeys want to win it, so there's a lot of anticipation, just as there is in the stands. It's just so huge," said Fitzgerald. "It is still the race that every jockey wants to win because it is the most instantly recognisable. Talk to anyone on the street. They will ask 'what do you for a living?' and if you say 'I'm a jockey' the first thing they will ask you is 'have you ever ridden in the Grand National or 'have you ever won the National?'"
Fitzgerald did indeed gain that public recognition when he won aboard Rough Quest: "It's the big one to have on your CV. Suddenly, you're a Grand National winning jockey, not just a winning jockey, and that's how you are always referred to afterwards."
There was a long-lasting aftermath due to Fitzgerald's supposed post-race quip that winning the National was "better than sex", now the title of his recent highly readable autobiography. In fact what he said to Des Lynam was that "sex is anti-climax after this", but why spoil a good line with fact?
"I will say that my now wife was at pains for me to point out when I was doing the publicity for the book that I wasn't with her at the time," said Fitzgerald. Glad to help clear that up, Fitz.
That victory was only Fitzgerald's second attempt in the National and he never reached those heights again: "I have to say that my record was exceptionally poor. I had just the one win from 14 attempts, but it doesn't really matter about the rest of them because as long as I have the win on my record then that's all that counts."
There was some talk of Fitzgerald taking up training, but punditry for At The Races and the BBC suits a man for whom the word loquacious was invented. At the moment I am having a hard enough time just trying to train our new dog," he said. "He's a wire-haired miniature dachshund called Wallis. I wanted to spell his name Wallace, but he ended up like Wallis and Gromit.
"I have worked for the BBC at Aintree but this is the first time I will be going to the National not as a jockey but as a full member of the team. It is very much a new career and a new part of my life. It's something I want to be good at, and if you want to be good you need to know your stuff."
He admits he is learning on the job from colleagues: "If you look at the BBC team they have got some of the best operators around.
"I was lucky enough to work with the BBC Five Live team at Cheltenham and I saw John Inverdale up close and was very impressed while obviously Clare Balding is an outstanding presenter."
For many millions of people, the Grand National is the only race they watch in a year. Next Saturday they will hear the distinctive Irish brogue of Mick Fitzgerald, possibly for the first time. It's a voice worth listening to.