My favourite Grand National memory?
There’s no comparison really to 1996 when I won it on Rough Quest.
We’d been second in the Cheltenham Gold Cup behind Imperial Call just two weeks earlier, so while he was due a hefty rise in the ratings, he was well handicapped for the Grand National as the weights were set a couple of months earlier.
Everything about the Grand National is special. The build-up is unique and back then, there were a lot more ‘Aintree’ factors to calculate.
Would your horse cope with the bigger fences? How experienced was the jockey? And, of course the all-important luck in running.
There’s no point in jumping well and then another one falls in front of you and skittles you over! Normal luck in running is a big ingredient to becoming a Grand National winner.
How good was this @mickfitzg? ?
Rough Quest justified 7/1 favouritism to land the 1996 Grand National ?
A sensational moment for trainer Terry Casey and owner Andrew Wates!
— The Jockey Club (@TheJockeyClub) March 30, 2020
Rough Quest had fallen in his one try over the National fences in the Topham Chase the year before and I had fallen at the first in my only National ride.
We needed all the luck in running there was going!
I was always confident though. Call it what you like, young, cocky or naive, but I knew that if I got him around the course and didn’t hit the front too soon, I would win.
It was as simple as that.
I was staying not far from Liverpool and my dad was with me. I thought it would be nice to spend some time with him before the big race.
After a light meal on the Friday night I wanted to have a ‘sweat’ in the bath for an hour and go over the form for the other races the next day. My dad said he would have a couple of drinks and come up later.
So, when I was finished and was trying to get some eve of Grand National sleep, my dad came stumbling into the room like an elephant, apologising for making such a racket.
He’d obviously had a few and a great night and was sound asleep in seconds, snoring his head off.
I had to get up several times to try and turn him over so ended up having one of my worst night’s sleep ever.
The day itself is a buzz from the minute you get there. The build-up, the Grand National parade in front of the stands, hacking down to the start to show your mount the first fence.
You can feel the anticipation and sense of occasion among the crowd. It’s almost a sense of relief when the starter calls the jockeys to form and line and then suddenly, the race is off.
Normally, you charge to the first fence – but for me and Rough Quest it was different. I could take my time because he had to be ridden ‘cold’ and put to sleep early in the race to conserve energy for the final thrust.
I was glad to get over the first and beat my old National record at least.
The next big test was the third fence – a big ditch – and when Rough Quest landed so sure-footed over that I thought to myself: I am going to win!
When we jumped the third last fence almost seven minutes later I thought: Just two more to jump and we’re there. But I had to engage my brain not to hit the front too soon as it’s a very long run from the last fence to the finishing line and many Grand Nationals have been won and lost there.
I wanted to wait until after what is known as the ‘Elbow’ on the run-in before hitting the front but was conscious that I had just drifted in on top of David Bridgewater and Encore Un Peux, before galloping on to win.
I crossed the line and it was an amazing feeling.
I had just won the Grand National!
Although I nearly did sh*t myself when a Stewards Enquiry was called and feared becoming the first jockey to lose the race in the stewards room!
Thankfully, the placings remained unaltered and I was rushed out to meet the BBC’s presenter, Des Lynam, as was traditional.
Des said: “Mick Fitzgerald you have just won the Grand National how do you feel?”
I said: ‘Des’ (like he was my best mate) after that even sex is an anti-climax!
The race started at 3pm back in the day and the media stuff took hours so it was after 6pm when I suddenly spied my dad on the way back to the weigh room. I’d been looking for him earlier and he just looked at me, gave me the thumbs up and said: “You did it, son”.
It was my proudest moment in racing.