17 April 2005

Moscow Flyer and Motivator: visits to two horses in two different codes this week. One 11 years old, the other three; one a much-proven jumping champion, the other a would-be on the Flat; one runs again this month, his 41st outing in seven seasons, the other misses his 2,000 Guineas appointment, leaving his racing efforts at just two. If you are prejudiced, you can get cross about it.

Jumps versus Flat: it’s the most hardy perennial of racing arguments which comes into sharp focus next Saturday when Sandown stages a card which mixes a Classic trial with steeplechasing’s final big race of the season on what was the Whitbread but is now `Betfred’ Day. Over the years it has given us both Arkle and Shergar. Do we want to say which is better ?

Many do, and at first you can understand it. Reputations over jumps have to be earned the hard way. Moscow Flyer may have won each of the 19 races he has completed over fences but, on the five other occasions, birch and gravity have intervened, most memorably in the “whore of a fall” on his jumping debut at Fairyhouse from which many horses would have returned in the knacker’s wagon.

By comparison Motivator’s highest risk is likely to be the Derby descent round Tattenham Corner. An attempt at the similar downward incline into Newmarket’s final furlong has been eschewed as too much hustle and bustle and might therefore endanger his chance of collecting Epsom’s £600,000 spoils, which in one bound would bring him over half of what Moscow Flyer has earned in seven years of sweat and thunder. And that’s before Motivator gets flogged for seven figures to stud where he will pleasure himself at up to £20,000 a go. See what I mean about prejudice?

Close up they don’t share it. Moscow Flyer had his wedding tackle removed long before the end of the last century. The reason being that at Motivator’s age he was still a gawky hopeful in the field and raging hormones would have imperilled his attitude not to mention his comfort as he tried to brush his way over the fences. On Monday he had a good roll in the field before coming back to stand comfortably in his corner box at Jessica Harrington’s converted farmyard in County Kildare.

The nearby village is called Moone and Moscow Flyer’s exploits have long since sent his supporters over it. They remember his brilliant first hurdling season (at already five years old), his overcoming of a cracked pelvis, his defeat of Champion Hurdler Istabraq, his opening but error-strewn early attempts over fences, his wins at Cheltenham, his fall there last year, his triumphant redemption a month ago.

Moscow Flyer is now officially the highest-rated chaser in our Islands. “I honestly think he is better than he has ever been,” says Jessica Harrington, looking on with as much affection as admiration. “He really understands his racing and his jumping now.” In 10 days’ time Moscow Flyer will bow out the season at Punchestown, the local track which Jessica and her husband, Johnny, joined the fight to save. It will be his eighth appearance there. The only time he has not won was when Barry Geraghty got unseated two Aprils ago. Irish fans won’t grumble about `Flat race pansies’. They will make the pilgrimage just to see Moscow fly.

Motivator won’t now have his first run of this his second season until the Dante Stakes at York on May 11. Guineas, Derby and Arc-winning jockey Johnny Murtagh rode him in what seemed brilliant work on Tuesday but advised against a Guineas run. For a while there was a touch of consternation in the Michael Bell stable as they counted losses on ante-post. Soon they began to appreciate that avoiding the Guineas showdown would give their highly-charged horse a better chance of starring in the later season middle-distance races his pedigree points to. After watching Thursday’s Craven Stakes they should have been certain.

This was the archetypal muddling Guineas Trial, no pace early, horses pulling their riders’ arms out, then a bumping, smacking, scramble to the line. Necessary to run in if you want to get to the Guineas, but absolutely not the cool progressive route you would like for a Derby horse. But hey, this is Classic Trial time. To complain about it is to moan about the emergence of weeds as well as flowers in the spring.

The first five in the Craven Stakes finished within two lengths of each other. For what it’s worth, Rob Roy, trained by Sir Michael Stoute, looked to me the animal whom physically and mentally would have learnt most from this, only his second race in public. But bookmakers were unimpressed enough to make Dubawi even-money favourite for the Guineas following his victory in Godolphin’s private trial in Dubai on Monday.

Such talk is to have something of an inferiority complex about the home defence which two major players counseled against at Newmarket. The first was Frankie Dettori. “Look,” he said, “we know he can beat the ones we have. We know he won his races last year. But he has only run three times. I don’t know he can beat the others.”

The second opinion came from an older head. Only 70 this November but it was a good 30 years ago that Lester Piggott best summed up the situation. “Every year,” he muttered, “they say the three-year-olds are no good. And every year they are wrong.”

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