5 December 2004

Was this the most athletic achievement of them all? In one glorious hour this August I was lucky enough to see Kelly Holmes, Hicham El Guerrouj and Britain’s 4 x 100m relay finalists flash by right in front of me. But nothing any of them did matched the power and reach Moscow Flyer showed to beat Azertyuiop and Well Chief in the Tingle Creek Chase yesterday.

The Sandown two-mile track is the most spectacular jumping circuit in the world. Horse and man have to navigate its uptilted oval and cross its 13 four-foot high fences in under four minutes. That means setting a gallop best described by the French phrase “ventre a terre,” (belly to the ground). Cenkos, the 2002 Tingle Creek winner, launched off at that type of pace yesterday. Barry Geraghty dropped Moscow Flyer in just behind him. This was to be steeplechasing’s ultimate example of no quarter asked or given.

For right behind Moscow Flyer was Azertyuiop, four lengths second to his main rival in this race last year and victor of Cheltenham’s Queen Mother Champion Chase in March when Moscow Flyer blundered and unseated Geraghty four fences from home. There were scores to settle but, much more important, there were fences to cross.

Cenkos fairly winged over the first two. Behind him the pursuers were equally adept and, crucially, Moscow Flyer was already into a long-striding rhythm which had made him a top-class hurdler in his early days. “At Cheltenham he was a bit too fresh,” Geraghty was to say afterwards. “He was always too keen. Yesterday you could feel the flow of him. He is a great athlete.”

The third fence is just about the most alarming of them all. For you come at it downhill with a fresh horse beneath you. As Cenkos approached it Azertyuiop hauled Ruby Walsh almost alongside, with Moscow Flyer hardly more than a length further back. They must have been doing close to 40 mph, any mistake and we would be scraping them off the turf. But these are gifted horses with jockeys to match. All four fairly flew it.

Swing into the back straight the first three fences come in rapid-fire; the last of them with the big open ditch in front of it. Two years ago Moscow Flyer got rid of Geraghty when he collided with the stumbling Flagship Uberalles. Moscow Flyer has actually unseated Geraghty on three separate occasions as well as giving him a real graveyard of a fall on their first attempt at fences back at Fairyhouse in October 2001. But he has also won all 15 of his completed chases. The jumping pressure was now.

Richard Johnson was firing Cenkos in like a boxer going for a knockout. It held no fears for Azertyuiop who could probably cross a fence at 50 mph without mishap. Further back Well Chief was being a touch more cautious, but his class kept him in it. Moscow Flyer was not perfect at the middle fence but stretched out over the open ditch in style.

The little posse drilled on over the water jump towards the three fences which come treble quick at the end of the back straight. At the first of them, Moscow Flyer’s stride was completely wrong. Time was when he would have galloped straight in and somersaulted. At 10 years old he has added prudence to his power; he shortened up and flicked over.

Cenkos was feeling the pressure. Coming to the Pond Fence, three from home, Geraghty was in control and looked over to the challenging Ruby Walsh on Azertyuiop with Timmy Murphy on Well Chief hunting in close behind him. “I wanted them to make a move,” claimed Geraghty. “It was a bit like a game of poker.”

And played at the gallop. Round the turn they came to face up to Sandown’s final two fences and the pitiless hill. Geraghty got a big jump from Moscow Flyer and with a left-handed swing cracked him hard across the backside. Moscow Flyer put his white-nose-banded head down in effort. He had two lengths on the others but all three of them bore down on the last fence with deadly intent.

The trick is to throw your heart over. Geraghty’s soared and Moscow’s flew with him. Both Azertyuiop and Well Chief also got good ones but the gap was still there. Men and horses dug deep. Sandown is a bad place for weakness. Moscow Flyer would not weaken.

One and a half lengths was the verdict, three minutes 52 seconds the time. Azertyuiop inched Well Chief out in a photo but the defeated had given the victor his greatness. Azertyuiop’s owner somehow grumbled about Walsh not being forceful enough but this was a day for celebration. Moscow Flyer has now won 23 times and collected over £900,000 in 37 races since he first appeared in a Fairyhouse bumper back in January 1999.

He is the greatest example yet of trainer Jessica Harrington’s equine excellence first seen in the three-day event field. When she got owner Brian Kearney to shell out the princely sum of 17,000 euros for what was his first-ever racehorse, it was the move of a lifetime.

Best of all, Moscow Flyer is not finished yet. A move up to three miles for the King George on Boxing Day beckons. The horse will have to recover fully from yesterday’s exertions. But the mood is bold, the horse is a champion. For racing fans it could be the perfect Christmas treat.

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