Racing: Flyer can crown Jessica's journey

Moscow duel with Azertyuiop promises to be one of the feasts
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Legend has it that, because of a slight on St Patrick by the inhabitants, there will never be a king emerge from Moone. Clearly, the exploits of the Co Kildare village's most famous inhabitant, Moscow Flyer, indicate that the sulky saint's influence does not extend to horses. But it was on 17 March that the two-mile chasing monarch lost his Cheltenham crown last year. Spooky, or what? Happily, there should be no malign interference this time round. Wednesday's Queen Mother Champion Chase comes a day too soon.

In trying to regain his throne, Moscow Flyer will be attempting a feat achieved only once before, by Royal Relief 31 years ago. His showdown with last year's Cheltenham hero, Azertyuiop, promises to be one of the feasts of the Festival. For his trainer, Jessica Harrington, it will be heart-stopping every stride of the way.

Moscow Flyer has the extraordinary record of having won every one of the 17 chases he has completed, but interspersed with those victories have been five jumping blunders, the last of which unseated Barry Geraghty four fences from home on that fateful day nearly 12 months ago.

"I believe he has got out of that habit," said Harrington last week, a bold statement which may have Lachesis and her mates twitching. "But it is agony watching him - though that is half the fun. I can't take my eyes off any race he's in. I can't wait for the winning post to come, but I'm just glued to everything he does. He is such an exciting horse and I suppose without being boastful I would rate him among the best Irish chasers of recent years."

Brian Kearney's 11-year-old bay gelding is the best in any country; in fact in Moscow Flyer, Azertyuiop and Well Chief the Champion Chase field, rather than that for the Gold Cup, contains the three highest-rated fencers in training. Moscow Flyer regained his position at the top of the pile with by defeating his two rivals in the Tingle Creek Chase at Sandown in December, by common consent the best contest of the season so far.

Memories of it bring more fighting talk from Harrington. "I'll be very disappointed if he's beaten," she said. "He's in good form, never been better. He has the same horses to beat as at Sandown and there's no reason why he shouldn't do so. Of course Azertyuiop and Well Chief have to be respected; they've both won at Cheltenham. But it should be a fast-run race and that will suit Moscow Flyer down to the ground. To be honest, I'm quietly confident. Not over-confident, mind you, just quietly."

Her Cheltenham strike-rate does nothing to say she should be otherwise, for the horses in her care tend not to make the journey across the Irish Sea just for the craic. At the past three Festivals her six runners have brought home three prizes: as well as Moscow Flyer's Champion Chase there was his Arkle Trophy, plus Spirit Leader's County Hurdle. The raiding party is four-strong this week, with leading Champion Hurdle fancy Macs Joy, Ulaan Baatar (Arkle Trophy) and Colca Canyon (Mildmay of Flete Chase) with the Flyer on the ferry today. "My attitude when it comes to Cheltenham is not to send anything over unless I think it will win," she said.

Harrington, 58, was born in London and completed her secondary education at an English boarding school, but spent her girlhood among horses in Ireland. Her father trained under permit, her brother John Fowler was a leading amateur and she herself is a former Irish Olympic three-day event rider.

Boundaries between equestrian disciplines in Ireland are thin and when she took out a full licence to train after a few years under permit with husband John the transition was seamless. She had seven horses in her first season, 1989; there are now more than 90 at Commonstown stables.

Moscow Flyer's hair-raising record notwithstanding (and to be fair, he has won his last five races without a semblance of a mental aberration), Harrington's eventing background means that where jumping is concerned, the horses under her care know their job. "In any horse sport the basics of balance and athleticism must surely be the same," she said. "We start ours off over poles as a matter of course and they can all pop from a trot, the benefit being that they learn to shorten in front of a fence if they have to. Any horse can take off from the wings but being able to put a short one in properly will stand it in better stead."

Right from the start, Harrington has always had at least one good horse in the yard; before the coming of Moscow Flyer there were Lady Olean, Oh So Grumpy, Dance Beat, Space Trucker, Miss Orchestra, Ferbet Junior, Slaney Native and Bust Out. Macs Joy, who has three times this season beaten horses ahead of him in Champion Hurdle betting, will be her second contender for the hurdling crown after Space Trucker, who finished third in 1997, two years before becoming the yard's first Festival winner, in the Grand Annual Chase. "Macs Joy goes there with more than a fighting chance," she said.

Moscow Flyer, though, is the man in Moone, but Harrington has been around horses long enough to take nothing for granted. "I hope he puts in a clear round," she said, "but if we're beaten, we're beaten, and we'll ride the storm. There'll be no point in going home and crying."