20 March 2005

The runners drummed down towards the second fence in the Queen Mother Champion Chase. The pace was frightening, but Moscow Flyer was close behind the two leaders and already ahead of Azertyuiop. Then you noticed the tightness of Barry Geraghty’s hand on the rein. This was a horse on fire.

That’s the Cheltenham heat that really counts — and hurts. Forget the blaze of losing betting slips, pass over the waves of hot air that cloud the Cotswolds, even stand aside for a moment from the celebrations that make this truly the most festive of Festivals. It’s all for nothing unless you appreciate the furnace entered by horse and rider.

It was too hot for Azertyuiop on Thursday. Two stable companions set off to stretch the gallop but by that second fence, they were already headed by Central House, the runaway Irish leader. Azertyuiop, washed white with sweat in adrenalin-pumped anticipation, could hardly contain them. A length ahead Moscow Flyer’s white nosebanded head told a different, more eager story.

A bit early to panic but two fences later disaster struck. Azertyuiop’s whole body was wrenched back as he dropped his hind legs in the water jump. He was given time to recover but it was always a vain pursuit. Championships allow no quarter and of all the Cheltenham statements none bettered Ruby Walsh’s tribute to his conqueror, “a great horse, a wonderful jockey, a superb trainer and the best lad in racing.” Honour thy victor is a fine tradition.

Moscow Flyer had come through the fire to log his 18th and finest steeplechasing victory since he took a mother of a fall on his debut at Fairyhouse in October 2001. He has never lost in his completed efforts over fences. He has also won seven hurdle races, all of these under Barry Geraghty. No wonder that on Wednesday Barry was claiming “Moscow” to be the best horse in the world. It was 48 hours before the question would reopen when he won the Gold Cup on Kicking King.

It was also 24 hours after Paul Carberry had found himself in the ultimate jockey’s nightmare on Harchibald as he cruised alongside Hardy Eustace up the Champion Hurdle run-in. The race was in his keeping but the winning post would not come. Fifty yards from the line he asked Harchibald but answer came there none. Critics pilloried Carberry for leaving it too late. They were wrong. He had come too soon.

If he had his race again he would try to time his finishing sweep on the run-in, not at the final flight. A year ago he and Harchibald had led at Cheltenham’s last in the Coral Cup and not got home. In December he had hunted down Rooster Booster to win on the run-in in Kempton’s Christmas Hurdle. In six victories with Harchibald, Carberry knows that he is best with one stabbing run. To have waited longer would have looked ever more over confident than Tuesday’s debacle and Harchibald might still have been repelled by the super tough Hardy Eustace, but it would have been the right thing to do.

Perhaps the heat got to that cool place between the ears that is the Carberry kitchen. Cheltenham, more than anywhere, makes you want to take the advantage when you see it, but again and again last week echoed the old adage that many more races are lost by coming too soon than too late. Graham Lee’s three victories, on Arcalis, No Refuge and Inglis Drever were all won from off the pace. No matter that the latter two could not go fast enough to keep a position early on, the man who waited until the Aintree elbow before winning the Grand National on Amberleigh House, confirmed himself almost as cool as his Cheltenham host Timmy Murphy when it comes to the stalking race.

Being stranded in front is the position jockeys and, if they could understand, horses should fear. It happened most graphically with Brooklyn Breeze who led down the hill before finishing fourth on Thursday and for a few ugly minutes next day it looked as if Lord Atterbury would pay a heavy price for the same tactics and the same position in the Foxhunters. He was so wobbly and dehydrated passing the line that only quick dismounting and intensive hosing cooled his body temperature enough to prevent disaster.

It was an admirably quick reaction by the Cheltenham staff and proof that hoses as well as mere buckets are essential when temperatures soar. While there was a hose at the Cheltenham finish there were only buckets in the winner’s circle, a limitation which has also applied at Aintree. Hosing down is common practice at Auteuil, France’s top jump track, in summer. Britain should imitate immediately.

On Friday we got shirt-sleeve weather and in the Gold Cup Kicking King was stretching Barry Geraghty’s arms almost as much as Moscow Flyer had in the Champion Chase. When he towed Barry to the front three out, you wondered if his resources too would also be found out on the Cheltenham anvil. Kicking King was unproven at the three and a quarter mile trip. Take The Stand drew heroically alongside two out. But Kicking King was too strong for him. He is the real thing.

So Geraghty now has the ultimate pair of horses in his quiver. He has been the partner of 24 of Moscow Flyer’s 25 victories and all 10 of Kicking King’s successes. Tall, athletic, gifted and strong his only obvious weakness is an appallingly heavy-footed imitation of the Dettori flying dismount. He is an ambitious young man but is unlikely share the ambition that all racegoers should now lobby for – a showdown between Moscow Flyer, Kicking King and a “something to prove” Best Mate next season.

Any big racecourse worth its salt, led by Kempton with its King George fixture next Christmas, would be lobbying the principals, and offering serious inducements already. Kicking King and Best Mate are both “King George” winners. Moscow Flyer’s connections have long talked of tackling three miles and at 11 years old their champion might as well pitch for this last hurrah. What’s more they would be favourites to win it.

Eamon Leigh has looked after Moscow Flyer since the horse first joined Jessica Harrington back in the summer of ’98. On Thursday it was a full half hour before he got back from the prize giving to greet his four-legged hero. “The only certainty,” he reminded us cryptically, “is that the sun will come up in the morning.” But don’t count out a special sunset this Christmas.

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