Viking Flagship rises to challenge

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reports from Aintree

"I've never had a better ride," Tony McCoy said, "and I probably never will." Even allowing for the euphoria of the moment, and the likelihood that he will be a leading rider for at least another decade, McCoy may well be right. For certain, the memory of his victory on Viking Flagship in the 1996 Melling Chase is one which the years will not diminish.

Any praise for the manner of Viking Flagship's victory or the depth of his character is inadequate. Many horses which ran prominently at Cheltenham have turned in lifeless performances this week, but just 16 days after finishing a close second to Klairon Davis in the Champion Chase, Viking Flagship strode away from both that rival and Sound Man to secure the fifth Grade One success of his career.

Just minutes before it had seemed that the exertions of his previous 41 starts were starting to trouble him. For the first time in his life, Viking Flagship was reluctant to line up, and as McCoy admitted, he did not travel conspicuously well in the early stages. Yet when his jockey let him know that a serious effort was required, he replied without hesitation.

"The minute I grabbed hold of him he was a different horse," McCoy said. "He just kept picking up and picking up. He is tough and really full of himself, and he flew the last three fences. He must really love racing.''

Viking Flagship also seemed to appreciate yesterday's two-and-a-half mile trip, and at nine years of age his capacity to beat the very best at the minimum trip may be fading. With such spirit to fire his engine, though, three miles may be now within his reach. "He's won over pounds 550,000 at two miles and two and a half," David Nicholson, his trainer, said, "but we may go up to three miles next season, go to the King George and see what happens. If he's going to get the trip anywhere it will be at Kempton.''

Two, maybe three seasons lie ahead for Viking Flagship, but at present there is no end in sight to the rising stature of the man who rode him yesterday. This was McCoy's third victory of the meeting, and with each new major success his confidence visibly increases.

A genuinely likeable and intelligent attitude has also started to replace the quiet reticence of the early part of the season, and while he may not yet be jumping's answer to Frankie Dettori, McCoy is clearly working on his turns of phrase. "When we turned into the straight," he said yesterday, "the only thing I was worried about going past us was Concorde."

Even Concorde might have struggled to keep pace with the amateur riders in the Fox Hunters' Chase over the National course as they galloped towards the first as if it was made of tissue paper. Five riders soon discovered that it was anything but, and it was only good fortune that allowed horses and riders to escape serious harm.

The charge was led by Rolling Ball, the 7-2 favourite, who looked to have reached the end of his stamina with three to jump but found a second wind to hold off Kerry Orchid up the run-in despite drifting across the width of the course.

n Rodney Farrant will miss the Grand National ride on Riverside Boy after being concussed in a heavy fall at Ludlow yesterday. Farrant tumbled from Master Murphy when the gelding fell three fences out in the novice chase. Martin Pipe, Riverside Boy's trainer, was last night struggling to find a suitable jockey who can ride at 10st for his charge.

n Warren Marston, due to ride Lusty Light in the National, must first pass the racecourse doctor before racing today. Marston was kicked in the head when falling from Jibber The Kibber at the ninth fence in the third race yesterday and was stood down for the day.

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