CHELTENHAM-WINNING jockey Shane Fitzgerald is still on cloud nine after his extraordinary victory on Commander Of Fleet in the Coral Cup at the Cheltenham Festival last week.
Riding in the famous colours of Gigginstown Stud for trainer Gordon Elliot the young Buttevant rider edged out his north Cork neighbour and friend Darragh O’Keeffe by the narrowest of margins.
“It hasn’t sunk in yet to be honest, and it is very hard to describe the feeling. As a child, every young jockey dreams of riding a winner at Cheltenham. To achieve it in front of the massive crowds with my parents in attendance was a dream come true.
“Gigginstown have been very supportive of me as has Gordon Elliot. The horse was returned at 50/1, but I knew we had a chance going out. On his best form, while the rain was also a massive help.
“Winning by a short head was cruel luck on Darragh and the connections of Fastorslow. But it was our day in the sun and that’s racing. We were headed in the last 50 yards, but we just got back up in the photo finish. It really was that tight.
“Walking back down in front of the crowds was really something very special. Getting waves from the crowd and recognising neighbours or friends and the joy on their faces. Gordon had seven runners in the race and my horse was the outsider of the lot.
“But riding for these big yards you will always have a chance. Commander Of Fleet was a winner of a Grade 1 novice hurdle a few years ago at Leopardstown. He’s a quirky character but when he brings his A game there is a big engine.
“Coming back into that winner’s enclosure and meeting Gordon and the O’Learys was the best feeling in the world.”
Racing historians trace the birth of steeplechasing back to north Cork in 1752. The first steeplechase is said to have been the result of a wager between Cornelius O’Callaghan and Edmund Blake, racing four miles (6.4 km) cross-country from St John’s Church in Buttevant to St Mary’s Church (Church of Ireland) in Doneraile. For Buttevant native Fitzgerald to beat Doneraille’s O’Keeffe by a short head at Cheltenham made for incredible viewing.
“Oh it was something else alright as we are great friends and often play a game of pool together. Obviously, we were both chasing our first festival winner.
“I was at the P2P at Liscarroll on Sunday and a number of people mentioned that famous race in racing history. Darragh is riding a lot of very good horses and has a lot of very good rides for Henry De Bromhead, hopefully, his first Cheltenham winner is very soon.”
National Hunt racing is a way of life in rural Cork and it’s all a young Fitzgerald ever wanted to do. He took the usual pathway by getting involved on the pony racing circuit before riding in P2P meetings. His upward curve has been steady and this Cheltenham winner was his 39th of the season.
“I was riding from the age of six years on the pony racing circuit. So many jockeys come through this old school academy. Even people like Paul Townend rode in pony racing. It’s a great education and a lot of the basic principles you pick up as a kid are carried right all the way to the big meetings.
“I used to pop into people like Mick Winters before going up to Shark Hanlons which was a great place to learn. When things got quiet there, I went to ride for Michael Goff down in Wexford. We had great luck altogether winning plenty of P2P races along the way.
“But when the pandemic hit the pointing was cancelled and it meant a lot of the smaller trainers and jockeys like myself struggled. We went from being flat out busy to getting no rides. But when the racing got going again, I linked up with John Ryan in Tipperary and riding a few winners for him got me noticed.
My agent Gary Cribbin is doing a terrific job so hopefully, this bit of success will help me. A normal week involves a couple of days with Joseph O’Brien and a day with people like Enda Bolger and Gordon Elliot.”
Riding a first Cheltenham winner can prove a real springboard for Fitzgerald. The 24-year-old has caught the eye of many shrewd judges in recent seasons and his sensational success on the biggest stage of all can propel him to the next level.
His association with Elliot and O’Brien will benefit hugely for a man keen to keep riding winners.
“As we head on to Easter there are race meetings at Cork and Fairyhouse. Getting rides at these high-profile races really gives you confidence to drive on to the next level. We will finish up at Punchestown which is massive and the prize money there is a real incentive for owners to run.
“The summer racing circuit is great and going to meetings across the country in high summer can be fun. These meetings give jockeys like myself plenty of opportunities. It’s been a great season up to now and keeping fit and healthy will be half the battle. We won’t forget this year in a hurry anyway.”