Champion Flyer 'the best since Arkle' says jubilant Geraghty

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Under the bust of the Queen Mother, Moscow Flyer returned in triumph here yesterday after the race run in her name. The Irish horse had won the event of the Festival, the collision of jumping's royalty, the one contested by the three highest-rated steeplechasers in training. He was the meeting's champion in the Champion Chase.

The Cheltenham Festival always reverberates when a celebrated Irish combatant fulfils the dreams of his nation. The Prestbury Park bowl was no different yesterday as Moscow Flyer returned to a shattering roar. His two British counterparts had been put to the sword, Well Chief a gallant second but Azertyuiop, the supposed ogre of the home team, an exhausted and badly beaten third. This was the damage inflicted by Moscow Flyer.

Such is the sum of the gelding's achievement - he has now won all 18 chases he has completed - that the extravagant compliment paid him by his grateful jockey, Barry Geraghty, for once did not seem hopelessly misplaced.

"He jumped brilliantly, was always in command and was just different class today," the jockey said. "It was all very straightforward. People have even claimed that Moscow Flyer is the best horse we have seen since Arkle. I would not argue with that."

It was another grey, dreary day in the Cotswolds, a day when persistent rain arrived just in time for the first race. On the track itself, though, there was inevitably going to be plenty of colour in the Champion Chase. There is always something compelling about the fastest fencing horses throwing themselves around undulating Gloucestershire terrain and over 12 fences. Mistakes, like blinking in the stands, are not an option. One was to have a fundamental effect on the course of the contest.

The Champion Chase king has always found dangerous enemies at the portcullis as he tries to retain the crown. Azertyuiop's aim was to become the first since Viking Flagship in 1995. And then there was Moscow Flyer himself, the 2003 winner, who was trying to emulate Royal Relief in 1974 and be the next horse to regain the championship.

The 11-year-old, who unseated Geraghty here 12 months ago, did not appear a greybeard as he emerged into the Cheltenham parade ring. The long horse, unlike the composed but nodding Azertyuiop, was on his toes. Moscow Flyer pranced and, as soon as Geraghty was hoisted into the saddle, the veteran started snorting. He knew what was coming. There had been blood in the horse's mouth earlier. He had bitten his lip. Soon, we were all to.

Well Chief was the least impressive of the triumvirate, his bleached chestnut hide looking as though it had been in the wash once too often.

After the tapes went up, Kadarann dominated the early skirmishes in company with Central House, but their moves were being covered in behind. Moscow Flyer tracked, with Azertyuiop not far away and Well Chief tucked further back by Timmy Murphy.

Azertyuiop made an effort to get upsides, on the inner, going out into the country for the second time. Then came cataclysm as he dropped his back legs in the water jump and decelerated violently. Yet that was not the reason for his doom, according to Ruby Walsh, rather a consequence of how he was travelling at the time.

"For some reason, he was never going," the jockey reported. "The mistake at the water didn't matter. At that stage, I could hardly keep up. Horses can't tell you what's wrong. He kept galloping away, but there was no life there."

There was, however, plenty of vitality in Moscow Flyer. By three out he was in front. It was, however, no procession from there, as the small form of Well Chief emerged for an assault. Geraghty was first to the whip as the partnership turned into the straight. Moscow Flyer got the message.

The 6-4 favourite dug in and, after the final fence, there could be only one winner. As is his wont, Moscow Flyer allowed another to get to his shirt-tails, Well Chief finishing two lengths adrift at the line.

It is this sort of magnanimity which has allowed Moscow Flyer such a long career. "He's never had hard races or hard seasons," Jessica Harrington, the Co Kildare trainer, said, "and he never wins his races by very far. He doesn't take a lot out of himself and that may be the trick about how he's performed so long. I've had him in the yard for six years now and he's amazing. To bring him back here at the age of 11 and win is just great. I think the whole of Ireland really wanted the horse to win this race. Cheltenham is the place for any Irishman to win a race."

It is this sense of self-preservation which gives Moscow Flyer some sane prospect of coming back 12 months hence and retaining his title at the twilight age of 12. His baying supporters will have drunk to that last night and the day of St Patrick is not a day they may see much of.