Racing: Flagship Uberalles sets sail

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THE BIG FIGHT does not always live up to its billing, but the clash of the two-mile heavyweights here yesterday went to the last punch. Flagship Uberalles, the young pretender, nicked the decision from Direct Route by a neck in the Tingle Creek Trophy Chase and the re-match is already scheduled for Cheltenham in March.

Six of the fastest jumpers of a fence in training lined up for the race named after the fastest from another era. As expected, Get Real and Edredon Bleu, the two confirmed front runners, exploded in macho fashion from the gate and, as the field swung away from the grandstands, were a dozen lengths clear. But Get Real, an enormous horse, did not negotiate the downhill turn too smoothly, stood off the first fence in the back straight too far and had to stretch to make the distance. In a matter of strides he went from looking mighty to cumbersome and may have tweaked something.

With nothing taking him on upsides, Tony McCoy gave Edredon Bleu a breather and the pack closed. The game little French-bred, second last year, still led two out, but had he been equipped with wing mirrors McCoy would have seen Direct Route, the winner 12 months ago, and Flagship Uberalles looming large and powerfully, one in each. The three horses rose together at the last, but only two landed running.

Direct Route has to lead as late as possible, but the Sandown hill with a young rival snapping is not the place to take a pull and Norman Williamson had to ask the questions. His mount answered and went a neck or more up, but that made him enough of a target for Flagship Uberalles and Joe Tizzard to aim at and catch with three strides to spare.

Not all the winner's Paul Nicholls stablemates have been firing recently, but there were no doubts beforehand about this one, a stunning looking bay five-year-old. "He was buzzing at home, did the best bit of work of his life during the week," said Tizzard. "The leaders went off as if it was a five-furlong race and I was flat out over the first two, but there was a chance for a breather. He is so, so, game; after we jumped the last he put his head further and further down and gave it everything."

Flagship Uberalles, who runs in the stars-and-stripes colours of the Anglo-American partnership of Elizabeth Gutner and Michael Krysztofiak, is a stunning bay five-year-old. He has a distinguished pedigree to live up to; his celebrated half-brother Viking Flagship won the two-mile crown, the Queen Mother Champion Chase, twice.

He is now favourite in most lists to follow the novice championship, the Arkle Chase, with the senior title. He and Direct Route, whose next target may be the Castleford Chase at Wetherby later this month, are unlikely to meet before the Festival and the latter's trainer Howard Johnston was phlegmatic about the outcome. "I'm sure it will be a great race," he said, "but I'd rather the other one stopped in his box."

A glimpse further into the future may have been seen as Decoupage cantered round the Esher amphitheatre to win what had beforehand seemed a fairly competitive Henry VIII Chase. The race, for two-mile starlets, is just one of the season's traditional pointers to the Arkle, but after the seven- year-old's stunning performance he is as short as 2-1 for the Cheltenham race.

Decoupage, a smart hurdler, has transferred his ability and more to fences, as his trainer Charlie Egerton suspected he might. Norman Williamson hardly moved a muscle throughout and, as Gloria Victis, the leader, began to falter, he cruised through his field and away up the hill to win, eased down, by five lengths.

"He just ran his stifles through the first fence," said Williamson, "and it was the best thing that could have happened. His jumping is exceptional and though he just stepped at the last a bit, because I was sitting so still, he quickened instantly when I asked him. He can make up ground in a stride and it really was as easy as it looked."

The race was Decoupage's second over fences after a facile win at Market Rasen the previous week. "I like them to start with something easy first time, just to get their eye in," said Egerton. "Cheltenham is the obvious target and where he goes before that will be dictated by the ground; soft will not be on his agenda. I am sure he will get further than two miles in time and perhaps we can dream about Kempton on Boxing Day next year."

Martin Pipe won his sixth William Hill Hurdle when Copeland, his perceived second string, beat his stablemate, the hot favourite Rodock, a short- head. The pair pulled well clear of the field and credit should go to the runner-up, who was giving 19lb to his rival, but McCoy, always ultra- competitive, had something of a sense of humour failure at being upstaged by David Casey.