Winning the Grand National sets you apart, says 1996 hero Fitzgerald

London (AFP) –


Mick Fitzgerald says the winning jockey in Saturday's Grand National will experience a life-changing moment -- even if the world famous steeplechase is not as daunting as it was when he won in 1996.

The 50-year-old Irishman's autobiography, "Better Than Sex", encapsulates the thrill he experienced crossing the line first after 30 fences on Rough Quest.

Even now his voice goes up a notch on the phone talking about the National and when he won it.

"It is amazing the euphoria you feel winning the Grand National," he told AFP. "It is one of those iconic races. Even if you know nothing about racing you will have heard of it.

"That is very special as it is transcending not just horse racing but sports as well and leading the news bulletins."

While the spruce-topped fences have been radically modified for safety reasons, Fitzgerald said the winning jockey would still be a household name compared even to those who have won the Cheltenham Gold Cup.

Fitzgerald should know as three years after Rough Quest's victory, he added the Gold Cup to his list of big race wins on See More Business.

"If you become a Grand National winner people may never have heard of other jockeys but they have heard of you," said the retired jockey.

"If you get stopped in the street and asked 'What do you do?' and you say 'I am a jockey', most will then ask 'Have you ever won the Grand National?'

"They will never ask you "Have you won a King George VI Chase?' It is the race they recognise."

While it was the event that set Fitzgerald apart from his rivals, it was also the one that brought an end to his stellar career 12 years later.

A crashing fall on L'Ami at the second fence in 2008 resulted in his breaking four vertebrae in his neck, two of which inserted themselves in his spinal cord.

He developed sepsis following surgery to have plates inserted into his spine, which eventually became infected, affecting his lungs and oesophagus.

He admitted he feared for his life but now, having made a full recovery and become a respected TV pundit, he returns to Aintree every year.

"I have walked round every year since my fall," he said. "I am not haunted by it. The overriding emotion is the pride at being a Grand National winner."

- 'Element of surprise' -

Fitzgerald believes the race is still special despite modifications to the fences to make it safer and the start being moved so the horses are further away from the stands, which are packed in a normal year.

This year's 173rd edition will take place in front of empty stands because of coronavirus restrictions.

"I think it still does retain it's magic to a degree but it is not the same unique race and challenge it was before," he said.

"That is nobody's fault -- we, as a sport, had to evolve. We have responsibilities to people watching the race and the horses running to make it as safe as possible.

"But you cannot take all the risks out of it, which is part and parcel for the race.

"There is still an element of surprise for the fences are different from those they are used to. However, it is nowhere near as taxing a challenge as it used to be."

Fitzgerald remembers the unique feeling before the race as the jockeys changed into their silks and waited for the call to go to the paddock to mount up.

"There appears to still be a real air of excitement," he said. "In my day it was exciting. Something runs through your veins that you do not find before other big races. It is a very different feeling."

His riding days may be over but his advice as to the best strategy for the 40 jockeys setting out on Saturday is clear.

"There are quite often a fair few fallers early on because they go out so fast," he said. "My advice is rein it in because you cannot win the race sat on your arse."