Racing: Newmill takes ageing Moscow's crown in brutal trial of strength
At the end of one of the most breathless steeplechases in years, simply to be breathing seemed victory enough. By halfway, with Newmill setting a runaway pace, Moscow Flyer's groom was staring down at the bridle chain in his fidgeting fingers, no longer able to watch as the fences seemed to rush towards the ageing champion.
By looking a few yards away, Eamon Leigh could see Ruby Walsh crawling groggily between the photographers gathered at the final fence. Kauto Star, who had started favourite to usurp his horse in the Queen Mother Champion Chase, had come down at the third, bringing down Dempsey and very nearly Moscow Flyer as well.
Kauto Star still had plenty to prove after just four chases but at least he got further than the French mare, Kario De Sormain, whose jockey was unseated at the first. Thierry Majorcryk had never ridden at Cheltenham and will be in no hurry to return, having been taken to hospital with thigh, chest and pelvic injuries.
His misfortune set the tone for a race of brutal intensity. Ultimately only six of the 13 starters would jump round: Oneway and River City both discarded their riders at the ninth, while Fundamentalist crashed at the second last.
Nor was Moscow Flyer alone in being outpaced. Fota Island and Central House, two Irish horses fancied to succeed their compatriot, were also rushed off their feet. It seemed quite obvious that young Andrew McNamara had set off far too fast on the unconsidered Irish runner, Newmill. If it was impossible to lie up with them, then surely it was no less possible for them to keep going on the shattering final climb to the post.
As the toils of his pursuers grew more pronounced, however, Newmill galloped on with undiminished purpose. Though he had a decided flirtation with the second last, he jumped the final fence with gusto and surged nine lengths clear of Fota Island, who led home a bedraggled cluster comprising Mister McGoldrick, Central House and Moscow Flyer.
You could still see the pride in the old horse, as Barry Geraghty searched for the fires that had won them three races at the Festival, but any lingering embers had been heartlessly extinguished by Newmill. Leigh shook his head and went on to the track to greet Moscow Flyer. He knew that he would never run again, and there was no disguising his relief. Once unbeaten in 19 completed starts over fences, Moscow Flyer had now been beaten for the fourth time running, and his trainer took her cue.
"I'm delighted he retires in one piece, and that he retires here at Cheltenham where he had his finest hours," Jessica Harrington said. "Barry was always just niggling at him. He was always under pressure instead of travelling. But we got him here when everybody was saying we wouldn't, and he hasn't been disgraced. In fact, he never stopped trying.
"I'm just pleased he is stood here with us now, and hasn't come back in one of those horrible white-and-blue wagons. Everybody knows what he means to me and I would have to say that he was the best two-miler I have ever seen."
Quite where Newmill will end up in the pantheon is difficult to say. Certainly, he has made dramatic progress in his first season since being switched to the Co Cork stables of John Joseph Murphy, starting off with a couple of honourable runs over hurdles, behind Brave Inca. The trainer, like his namesake after the Smurfit Champion Hurdle the previous afternoon, seemed one of the most composed men on the track.
"I was confident we would be in the first three," he said. "I was a bit worried Central House might take him on and buzz him up, because he does get buzzy when he thinks about jumping and thinks about life. Andrew is a top-class jockey, a future champion. My only orders were to be up there and out of trouble."
That simple strategy proved highly prescient. "I could hear a lot of noise and commotion in behind but I didn't know what was going on," McNamara said. "I couldn't believe how well he travelled. I took one look round before the last and saw that we had them."
Still only 22, McNamara announced his talent to British racegoers by riding four winners in one afternoon at Musselburgh in November. His father saddled Boreen Prince to win the Arkle Trophy here in 1985, and he will be hoping that Newmill can exalt him in much the same way that Moscow Flyer did Geraghty.
For now, however, he must accept that his first Cheltenham role has been villain. On an afternoon when the bookmaking industry computed its overall profits in excess of £30m, it was not just the horses who were littering the ground. Fortunately, all seven who hit the deck in the Champion Chase returned unscathed, but at the time it did resemble the retreat from Moscow.
But then that is how empires end. Geraghty rode Moscow Flyer back along the walkway through respectful applause. Two of the fallers were led back with him. They might as well have been towing broken cannons. "I owe such a lot to this horse," Geraghty said. "He was such a leg-up for my career. I hope he has a long and healthy retirement. He's the best I have ever ridden - and the best I have ever seen."
Like all the Festival perennials Moscow Flyer became cherished as a miracle of soundness and dependability. His usurper remains a novelty, and his mastery of the next generation cannot be presumed, but there was certainly a hint of tyranny in his performance.
William Hill offers 10-1 against Newmill retaining this prize next year, behind Kauto Star and Voy Por Ustedes on 6-1.
Lest we forget, however, Well Chief (8-1) and Azertyuiop (10-1) remain entitled to return from injury next year and may yet reflect further glory upon the horse who ruled them in his pomp.
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