Racing: Moscow Flyer returns for Festival tune-up

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The Independent Online

Soon it will be time for the main horse at Commonstown, in the Co Kildare village of Moone, to stop rolling around in the muddy paddock at the front of the training establishment, to stop keeping a wary eye on the traffic over the hedge.

Soon it will be time for the main horse at Commonstown, in the Co Kildare village of Moone, to stop rolling around in the muddy paddock at the front of the training establishment, to stop keeping a wary eye on the traffic over the hedge.

Moscow Flyer has been on extended leave since a cold over Christmas meant he missed an appointment at Leopardstown. Now the 11-year-old is back and buzzing, and on course to have his final Cheltenham tune-up in the Tied Cottage Chase at Punchestown on Sunday, 30 January. "It's a Grade Three race over two miles, which he won two years ago and it will be his only outing before Cheltenham," Jessica Harrington, the trainer, said yesterday. "He's in grand order and, touch wood, everything is going well with his preparation for the Festival." Moscow Flyer has not run since beating Azertyuiop in the Tingle Creek Chase at Sandown last month, which was recompense of a sort for surrendering his Queen Mother Champion Chase crown to the same horse at last year's Festival. There appears to be plenty of fight left in the old king.

There will be further excitement at Commonstown this weekend, when the yard's Champion Hurdle aspirant, Macs Joy, attempts to justify favouritism in the Irish equivalent at Leopardstown.

Wicked weather is predicted at the Foxrock course, with rain and wintery showers expected, raising the likelihood of testing ground. However, the terrain should have little affect on Macs Joy, as the five-year-old ploughed through soft ground to land the December Festival Hurdle. "He seems to have handled it [soft ground] well throughout his career, including when he won at Christmas and it's really not much of a worry for him," Harrington added. "I see no reason why he won't go through it again." Bad ground will help Macs Joy in another way, as it would mean the withdrawal of Harchibald. The Kempton Christmas Hurdle winner currently dominates the market for the Champion Hurdle itself, but connections are keen to avoid soft conditions with the six-year-old. "Anything up to soft would probably be all right, but I definitely won't run him if it is heavy," Noel Meade, the trainer, said yesterday. "I shall leave him in the race tomorrow and his participation is entirely down to the workings of the weather."

Baracouda remains the 7-4 favourite for a third Festival championship race, the former Stayers' Hurdle, for which 35 contestants remain. The French horse just failed to complete a hat-trick last season in the event now known as the World Hurdle when he was denied by Iris's Gift. That bête noire has been removed, however, as Jonjo O'Neill's grey is aimed at the Cheltenham Gold Cup.

The cast list that remains suggests that Crystal D'Ainay will be the biggest threat to the former champion in the Cotswolds. Yet the Alan King-trained horse has already tried and failed twice this season to bring down François Doumen's champion, first at Newbury and then at Windsor.

"My horse has had a little break since the Long Walk and he is back in good form now," King said yesterday. "He runs in the Cleeve Hurdle [at Cheltenham] next. I'm not worried about Baracouda, inasmuch as I've only got control over my own horse. I'm not sure what we can do to beat him, as we tried a series of tactics at Windsor and none of them worked."

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