Racing: Fota Island to end Moscow Flyer's reign

If actions really do speak louder than words, then this afternoon Moscow Flyer will join Badsworth Boy as a three-time winner of the Queen Mother Champion Chase. For the talk emanating yesterday from some of those closely associated with the horse who, until quite recently, has been the best steeplechaser in Ireland, was not so much fighting as all-out nuclear Armageddon.

"I thought he was a certainty last year and I think he's a certainty again," said the great gelding's rider, Barry Geraghty. "And there's no Azertyuiop, no Well Chief this time. If he's even a stone off what he was last year he can beat this lot. He's only got to be a bit better than he's been this season to beat our best on the ratings, Central House.

"I think Kauto Star is well over-rated; that wasn't a great Tingle Creek he won. I don't think he's that good. And maybe the ground is going against Fota Island, who was my dark horse."

Geraghty's bias may be understandable. He has ridden the wonderful Jessica Harrington-trained 12-year-old in all bar six of his 43 races and to 25 of his 26 wins. But again, he is probably the man most able to judge the wellbeing of the equine athlete beneath him, and he is one of the sharpest analytical brains in the weighing room.

The last time he rode the Flyer in anger was late last December, when he plodded in fourth in the race won in such dramatic fashion by Hi Cloy, the one where the hapless Roger Loughran threw victory away on Central House by celebrating early. Harrington's horses were in miserable form then but though the inmates of her Co Kildare yard are now in rude health, Moscow Flyer famously appeared not to sparkle in a recent schooling gallop at Leopardstown.

Though a little more measured in her assessment of the situation, Harrington still keeps the faith. "I've got to," said the mistress of Commonstown. "He looks well, and is well. There's nothing physically wrong with him. In fact, he's had a better preparation for this year's race than last year's, when he was nursing a bruised foot. There is the possibility that he's nursing old age now. But maybe in hindsight that spin at Leopardstown wasn't as bad as we thought, he's just getting a bit cute about just galloping.

"He's been very well at home since and I tell you, as soon as he arrived in the yard here at Cheltenham, he grew two inches. We have to be positive, and still have hope. But until he gets out there on the track, we just don't know."

There is the strong possibility that, win or lose, today may be the last time Moscow Flyer, winner to date of £1.1m for owner Brian Kearney, is seen in public. "Whatever happens," added Harrington, "The thing is that he comes back safe." Amen to that.

Age alone need not preclude Moscow Flyer from retaining the two-mile crown, for Skymas was 12 when he won for the second time in 1977, nor should it, at the other end of the scale, rule out six-year-old Kauto Star, though none of his tender years have struck since Inkslinger in 1973.

At home, Paul Nicholls compares Kauto Star with his victor of two years ago, Azertyuiop, and he is the bright young thing of the division - but may be more the finished article with another year on his back and any value has long since gone.

Pace will be guaranteed, with Central House and the headstrong, slightly mad French mare Kario De Sormain (she wears earplugs and a bonnet) up front. Today will be Central House's second go at the race; he came in sixth last year after being readily outpaced at the business end, but is undoubtedly a stronger, better horse this time round.

The same can be said of Fota Island. JP McManus's 10-year-old marched smartly up the handicap last season with victories at this meeting and Aintree. He split High Cloy and Central House at Leopardstown before winning readily at Fairyhouse in January and, for a year, the canny Mouse Morris - who rode Skymas - has targeted him at today. He is still on the upgrade, goes on the track and the rain has stopped in time.

The heart says Moscow Flyer, the head says Fota Island (3.15). The horse named after a Cork golf course can come up to scratch.

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