Racing: Azertyuiop is spot on to for vintage Champion clash

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The Independent Online

How is it possible to chose between a Petrus, a Margaux, a Mouton Rothschild? Between a Monet, a Degas, a Renoir? Bach, Mozart, Tchaikovsky? Or Moscow Flyer, Azertyuiop and Well Chief? Debate can rage forever about the wines, the painters, the composers. But today we will know which horse is the first among equals.

How is it possible to chose between a Petrus, a Margaux, a Mouton Rothschild? Between a Monet, a Degas, a Renoir? Bach, Mozart, Tchaikovsky? Or Moscow Flyer, Azertyuiop and Well Chief? Debate can rage forever about the wines, the painters, the composers. But today we will know which horse is the first among equals.

The trio of brilliant two-mile chasers, the three highest-rated crossers of a fence in training, are very different, in aptitude and physically. But they have one thread in common, a hawser of steel running through them. Moscow Flyer has, according to his trainer Jessie Harrington: "A very high opinion of himself. But he's a fighter."

Her colleague Paul Nicholls rates Azertyuiop: "A professional. And so tough." Well Chief is, for his rider Timmy Murphy: "A warrior."

It is easier to retain a Queen Mother Champion Chase than to regain one. The only horse in the previous 45 runnings of the speedsters' crown in the latter category has been Royal Relief, the winner in 1972 and 1974 and runner-up in the intervening year. There have been nine instances of back-to-back victories, most recently by Viking Flagship 10 years ago.

Moscow Flyer, who fell last year when bidding to record the 10th, is the one trying to scramble back onto the Cheltenham throne. An Irish-bred son of Moscow Society, he is simply a beauty to behold: a bright bay with four matching white socks that seem to emphasise his dancer's balance and lightness of foot, an almost femininely pretty face, set off by a symmetrical white diamond and topped by a pair of cheerful, cocky ears.

Formerly a high-class hurdler, he owns the well-documented record of having won all 17 of his completed chasing starts. The other five outings have brought falls or mistakes too bad for his jockey to survive, though there has been no mishap in his five races since his fall a year ago. He will be racing for the 39th time today and is experienced enough to adapt to a race as he finds it. "If they go quick we can sit in," said jockey Barry Geraghty, "if there's no pace we'll sit handy."

Only one horse as old as he, though, has won the race, dual hero Skymas, who was 11 first time back in 1976. And only one, even longer ago, as young as six-year-old Well Chief; Inkslinger, who thwarted Royal Relief's hat-trick.

German-born, Flat-bred Well Chief, who shares his sire Red Ransom with Oaks heroine Casual Look, is not the biggest in the world, but one of the bravest. The bonny little white-blazed chestnut's battling performance to win the Victor Chandler Chase on today's course under a huge weight was the best in a handicap in 15 years. His jumping technique is not yet perfect, but he is a young pretender of the highest order.

The big, butchly handsome Azertyuiop (whose name is derived from the top line of a keyboard in his native France), 490 hunky pounds in weight, is the best jumper of the trio, failing to complete only once, and that when Mick Fitzgerald, in the saddle for the first and only time, fell off him. He has been beaten twice fair and square by Moscow Flyer, but both times were at right-handed Sandown.

"There is there and here is here," said Nicholls yesterday. "He's never been beaten when he stands up. We've never been beaten left-handed. Something's got to give."

Azertyuiop, whose dark good looks are set off by the faintest pinpoint glimmer of a white star between his eyes, is eight, the mode age for the contest with 18 previous winners, and seemed close to being honed when he accounted for Well Chief at Newbury last month. "He looks magnificent, as you'll see tomorrow," added Nicholls.

"He's been heavy all season, no point in being his best before now. He's spot-on, I couldn't have him better." In a showdown that could provide the spectacle of the week, Azertyuiop (3.15) can become the second of the meeting's champions to defend his crown.

Winners of the Royal & SunAlliance Novices Hurdle do not have a bad subsequent record, as Istabraq and Hardy Eustace have shown. The Irish launch a determined attack, headed by Royal Paradise and Queen Astrid, but Gold Medallist (2.00), a Group 2 Flat winner unbeaten in three tries in his second career, can top the podium.

The Best Mate connection at the festival can emerge vicariously through his younger, quirkier brother Cornish Rebel (2.35) and the trickiest question of the day can go to Ansar (4.00).

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