Racing: Flyer's fall leaves the way clear for Azertyuiop

Click to follow
The Independent Online

The place was awash with shamrock and leprechauns but all for naught. Yesterday of all days, the luck of the Irish ran out as Moscow Flyer's nose scraped the emerald turf, Barry Geraghty went flying and the crowd here rose to hail the new two-mile king, Azertyuiop. And a right regal coronation it was, too; notwithstanding the reigning champion's mishap, Azertyuiop strode home in majesty to win the 44th Queen Mother Champion Chase by nine lengths.

The place was awash with shamrock and leprechauns but all for naught. Yesterday of all days, the luck of the Irish ran out as Moscow Flyer's nose scraped the emerald turf, Barry Geraghty went flying and the crowd here rose to hail the new two-mile king, Azertyuiop. And a right regal coronation it was, too; notwithstanding the reigning champion's mishap, Azertyuiop strode home in majesty to win the 44th Queen Mother Champion Chase by nine lengths.

Ruby Walsh, in the saddle, milked the moment, and some more, as he and the magnificent French-bred seven-year-old walked back in front of the stands, his arms windmilling in a solo Mexican wave as adulation tumbled his way. Waiting back in the winner's circle, the reactions of trainer Paul Nicholls and owner John Hales revealed that it is infinitely easier to do than to watch.

Hales, sweating more than his gallant warrior on an unnaturally close March day, confessed that he had not seen a stride of the race. "I didn't want to look, couldn't look," he said. "I was standing next to the gents in the grandstand, looking at the floor. There was a fella next to me giving me a commentary and of course I heard the noise from the Irish when Moscow Flyer came down. I'm truly sorry he did. I would have liked to have beaten him fair and square."

Eight set out for the Grade One contest with its £145,000 first prize. The sabre-rattling during the phoney war in the first half of the contest came from habitual front-runner Ei Ei, who set a blistering gallop with Cenkos in his wake. But fast as he went, the class horses were able to drop him at will. Geraghty and Walsh, on the big two, had been shadowing each other and at the water jump decided that the proper race should begin.

And it was Azertyuiop, the young pretender, who turned the screw. He moved up into the van effortlessly and five fences from home took three lengths out of his field in the air, landing running in the lead. Moscow Flyer, the 5-6 favourite, moved to cover his 15-8 market rival, but once the gun was to his head it was apparent that his technique in the air was under pressure. That has always been his achilles' heel; his record is still that he has won all 12 chases he has completed, but completed is the operative word.

At the fourth from home, rattled by a slight fluff at the previous obstacle, he took off a full stride too soon, instantly realised his mistake, tried to get his feet down again and crashed through the birch, legs flailing. To his credit he did not fall, but Geraghty had no possible chance of maintaining the partnership. "He was a bit out of his rhythm," said the jockey, "and I gave him a squeeze, he met it long and paddled. A pity, but he's OK and I'm OK." Geraghty heard the huge groan that arose in the distance. "It was nothing to the one from me," he added.

Up front Azertyuiop, who had met the same fence a little close, was back in tempo. Then, going down the hill, for a few strides is seemed there would be the one twist in the drama that Nicholls did not want. Relations between the trainer and Oliver Carter, the owner of the stable's third string, Venn Ottery, have been strained in the past few days and there was the rehabilitated nine-year-old thundering along like a train.

But once heads were turned for the final push, Azertyuiop, who takes his name from the top line of a French keyboard, asserted his superiority. After the penultimate fence Walsh had the confidence to look back between his legs for dangers; soon afterwards he was passing the line standing triumphant in the irons. His nearest pursuer was the champion of two years ago Flagship Uberalles, then with Nicholls, now with Philip Hobbs. Tiutchev took third with the other Dicheat runner, Cenkos, fourth as Venn Ottery faded.

"I'd looked back down the course for Barry," said the Irishman, "and wondered where he'd gone. My horse gave me a super ride; he settled great, travelled great and his change of gear is exceptional."

There was no air-punching from Nicholls, whose overwhelming emotion was relief after a disappointing first day at the Festival. "Racing is all about ups and downs," he said, "but it's something you live with. But we really didn't have any worries coming into the race. He was so well, I could not have had him looking any better. His whole career had been geared to this day and I hope he will be hard to beat next year. He's the best two-miler we've ever had, much sounder and easier to train than Flagship ever was."

Azertyuiop will not be seen again this season. He is Hales's second Champion Chase winner, after One Man six years ago. That grey's fatal fall at Aintree a few weeks after his greatest day still preys on his owner's mind. "I never want to tempt fate like that again," he said. "Azertyuiop will go home now, be turned out and enjoy his summer."

As the new champion returned to the crucible of welcome, a wag in the crowd yelled: "It's St Patrick's Day. Let's cheer for him like Irishmen!" And they did.

Comments