Every Thursday we'll be looking back on the career of a Cheltenham Festival legend and this week, Timeform and David Ord pay tribute to Moscow Flyer.
“Moscow Flyer is magnificent and is Champion again” roared Simon Holt as Jessica Harrington’s stable stalwart bounded up the hill to regain his Champion Chase crown in 2005.
A year later, when the fire that burned so bright was just starting to fade, he bowed out in the same race after finishing fifth to Newmill.
Even before the dust had settled Timeform were moved to write: “It shouldn't detract from a marvellous career, over both hurdles and fences, during which Moscow Flyer notched up no less than 26 wins (including a staggering 13 at Grade 1 level); as has been stated before, only Desert Orchid holds stronger claims to be considered the greatest chaser since Arkle.”
Some compliment, some horse.
For four seasons when he stood up over fences he won. It was a simple as that. The haul included the 2002 Arkle, the 2003 Champion Chase and later that same year, a first Tingle Creek at Sandown.
He handed over his crown at Cheltenham in March when blundering and unseating Barry Geraghty at the fourth but brushed himself down to win Grade Ones at Aintree and Punchestown in the spring.
He wasn’t infallible but was brilliant, a potent force in two mile championship events that were deep.
In the 2004 Tingle Creek Azertyuiop was sent-off an odds-on favourite to take revenge for his defeat the previous season. It was never on from the moment Moscow Flyer jumped to the front four out. It was a race of the ages but try as the market leader and the even younger legs of Well Chief might, the leader wasn’t for catching.
As statements go it was pretty clear. The young pretenders would have to wait.
They were back to have a go at Cheltenham in March but were readily dispatched, chasing shadows from the last. The crowd saluted a Festival legend and we knew we were savouring a special moment.
That was to be his last victory. Rathgar Beau beat him a short-head at Punchestown and the 2005-2006 season, his final one, never scaled the same heights.
But very few ever did. In an era when other champions were around to test his mettle, Moscow Flyer proved impossible to beat. The only danger was himself.
But we don’t want perfect champions, we love the ones who have to clamber off the canvas, look their conquerors in the eye and regain the belts.
He did just that – and in a style that meant Simon’s excitement and Timeform’s powerful words were fully justified.
A series like this is designed for a horse like Moscow Flyer.
Moscow Flyer was a top-class hurdler but he is best remembered for his outstanding performances as a chaser. He was successful in 13 Grade 1s over fences, including twice in the Champion Chase at the Cheltenham Festival, and his defeat of Azertyuiop and Well Chief in a top-class edition of the Tingle Creek Chase at Sandown in December 2004 is fondly remembered as one of the races of the century. He was expertly trained throughout his career, which spanned from 1999 to 2006, by Jessica Harrington.
Moscow Flyer had been beaten on all four starts in bumpers the previous campaign, but he hit the ground running in the 1999/2000 season, winning a maiden hurdle at Punchestown and a minor event at Down Royal within the space of a week. Those efforts earned Moscow Flyer a shot at the Grade 1 Royal Bond Novice Hurdle at Fairyhouse and he came out on top of that four-runner contest, beating odds-on favourite Stage Affair by three lengths.
Unfortunately, Moscow Flyer fractured his pelvis in January, which meant any plans to head to Cheltenham had to be scrapped. He looked badly in need of the run when failing to beat a rival home on his return in a Grade 3 at Fairyhouse in April, but he showed much improved form at Punchestown just nine days later to win the Champion Novice Hurdle – he had Supreme Novices’ Hurdle winner Sausalito Bay back in third.
Major races won:
Moscow Flyer emerged with credit when a close-up third in the John James McManus Memorial Hurdle at Cork on his reappearance, and he made the most of a good opportunity to win the Morgiana Hurdle at Punchestown in November. He then had to settle for second behind Youlneverwalkalone in the Hatton’s Grace Hurdle at Fairyhouse, but bounced back to winning ways in the Grade 2 December Festival Hurdle at Leopardstown, where the mighty Istabraq fell at the last when still in contention.
Istabraq put that blip behind him when winning the AIG Champion Hurdle back at Leopardstown, though Moscow Flyer had just hit the front before taking a heavy fall at the second-last – it’s likely that Moscow Flyer would have finished a valiant runner-up had he completed.
Moscow Flyer was successful on his final start over hurdles in the Shell Champion Hurdle (run at Leopardstown rather than its traditional home at Punchestown) but he was fortunate to do so, as Istabraq looked to have matters under control before coming down at the final flight.
Major races won:
Moscow Flyer fell on his chasing debut at Fairyhouse in October, failing to impress with how he jumped even before he came down at the fifth-last. He jumped much better when scoring at Down Royal on his next start, however, and was then quickly turned out to win the Grade 3 Craddockstown Novice Chase at Punchestown, where he won with plenty in hand.
Moscow Flyer consolidated his position as ante-post favourite for the Arkle at the Cheltenham Festival with a straightforward success in a Grade 1 at Leopardstown over Christmas, jumping soundly in the main and scoring with more in hand than the winning margin of two lengths would suggest, but he took a tumble on his next start in the Irish Arkle, coming down at the fifth fence.
When Cheltenham came around Moscow Flyer was only fourth in the betting for a high-class edition of the Arkle. However, he proved too good for his rivals, beating favourite Seebald by four lengths and running to a level that had been bettered by only Bobsline in the race in the past 25 years.
He wasn’t done for the season, either, and did not need to be anywhere near his best to follow up at Punchestown, winning a third Grade 1 of the campaign.
Major races won:
Moscow Flyer failed to complete for a third time over fences when unseating in the Tingle Creek Chase at Sandown in December, though it was an unfortunate exit as he collided with the favourite Flagship Uberallas, who had stumbled in front of him, giving Geraghty no chance of staying in the saddle.
He quickly gained a measure of compensation, however, in the Paddy Power Dial-A-Bet Chase at Leopardstown later in December, and he again justified short odds in the Tied Cottage five weeks later. All roads now led towards a return to Cheltenham, this time for the Queen Mother Champion Chase, in which he would meet the previous two winners, Edredon Bleu and Flagship Uberalles. However, his main rivals appeared to be Tiutchev – a former Arkle winner himself – and Cenkos, who had won the Tingle Creek.
Moscow Flyer, sent off a well-backed 7/4 favourite, made a mistake at the fourth-last, but he was always going well and was left in the lead when Seebald and Latalomne departed independently at the second-last. Moscow Flyer only had to be kept up to his work in the home straight and came home seven lengths clear of the previous year’s runner-up Native Upmanship, while Cenkos was a further three lengths back in third.
His season ended on a disappointing note, however, when he unseated Geraghty at the second-last at Punchestown.
Major races won:
A smooth success in the Fortria at Navan set Moscow Flyer up for the eagerly anticipated Tingle Creek clash with the previous season’s impressive Arkle winner Azertyuiop.
As it turned out, the expected stiff challenge from Azertyuiop failed to fully materialise, and Moscow Flyer, who had taken the lead crossing the railway fences, had the race in safe keeping when soaring over the last. He only needed to be kept up to his work to finish four lengths ahead of his main rival.
Moscow Flyer then completed back-to-back wins in the Paddy Power Dial-A-Bet Chase at Leopardstown over the Christmas period before heading straight to the Festival to defend his Champion Chase crown. However, the occasional lapses in concentration that had been a factor throughout Moscow Flyer’s career resurfaced at an inopportune moment. He was close-up and still going strongly when giving Geraghty little hope of retaining the partnership at the fourth-last. Azertyuiop took full advantage and the question of who was the better chaser would have to be left for another day.
Moscow Flyer did at least get back on track with a couple of victories before the summer break, landing the Melling Chase at Aintree and then the Punchestown Champion Chase, extending his unbeaten record over fences when completing to 14.
Major races won:
Moscow Flyer would take the same route to Sandown – for what would prove to be a vintage renewal of the Tingle Creek – as he had 12 months earlier, registering a straightforward success in the Fortria at Navan after he was left well clear when Rathgar Beau blundered and unseated his rider at the last.
The Tingle Creek not only met all expectations, but it exceeded them, the anticipated match turning into a three-cornered clash with the most recent winner of the Arkle, Well Chief, playing his part in a thrilling spectacle.
Having beaten Azertyuiop fair and square the previous year, Moscow Flyer did so again, and every bit as convincingly. After tracking Azertyuiop’s stable companion Cenkos, Moscow Flyer jumped to the front at the fourth-last, a move that was greeted by a huge roar from the grandstand. Moscow Flyer cleared the Pond Fence in good style and then put in excellent jumps at the last two for good measure – he was never going to be beaten from then on and left the impression he could have found more had it been required.
Moscow Flyer had confirmed his position as the best chaser around and, with the Champion Chase top of the agenda for the remainder of the season, it was decided that he would be kept to two miles in the short-term. Plans to win a third straight Paddy Power Dial-A-Bet Chase at Leopardstown had to be abandoned when Moscow Flyer was found with a small amount of mucus in his lungs, but he completed his Festival prep with a straightforward success in the Tied Cottage at Punchestown.
There had been several back-to-back winners of the Queen Mother Champion Chase – Badsworth Boy had even completed a hat-trick in the mid-eighties – but Royal Relief had been the only previous winner of the race to have regained his crown. With the Tingle Creek still fresh in the memory, the Champion Chase looked set to be the race of the entire Festival (the Gold Cup had lost much of its lustre due to late withdrawals, most notably Best Mate).
Unfortunately, for the second year running, the eagerly anticipated clash failed to fully materialise as Azertyuiop’s winning chance was effectively ended when he left his hind legs in the water jump with less than half of the race completed.
Moscow Flyer jumped into the lead at the third-last and was chased all the way by the young pretender Well Chief, though Moscow Flyer gave the impression he was always doing just enough in front and held on by two lengths. He unsurprisingly mobbed by well-wishers on his return to the unsaddling enclosure, where Geraghty executed a Frankie Dettori-style flying dismount.
A second Melling Chase soon followed, with Moscow Flyer landing the odds with any amount to spare, effortlessly turning the screw soon after hitting the front at the fifth-last. We did not know it at the time, but that would prove to be Moscow Flyer’s final victory of a glittering career as what had looked little more than a lap of honour in Punchestown’s Champion Chase later in April proved to be anything but. Having taken the lead four out, he was ridden into the straight and seemed likely to be strongly pressed even before making a monumental blunder at the second-last, which handed the advantage to Rathgar Beau. Despite producing a spirited rally after the last Moscow Flyer could never quite get his head back in front, and he suffered his first defeat when completing over fences.
Major races won:
There would be a sudden changing of the guard in the two-mile division. Neither Azertyuiop nor Well Chief would race during the campaign – Azertyuiop was retired the following summer – while old age seemed not so much to creep up on Moscow Flyer as to overwhelm him.
Moscow Flyer started off as usual in the Fortria, though he was unable to repel a race-fit Central House. Having been forced to miss the Tingle Creek with a lung infection, the pair would cross swords once again in the Paddy Power Dial-A-Bet Chase at Leopardstown, but Moscow Flyer was once again well below his best in fourth.
Moscow Flyer was the senior runner in what was his fourth Champion Chase, attempting to become only the second 12-year-old winner (after Skyness in 1977). Sent off at 5/1, he was hampered in the melee caused by Kauto Star’s fall at the third fence, but was beaten on merit, coming home fifth. It was clear that age had finally dulled his speed and connections sensibly opted for honourable retirement immediately after the race. He bowed out as one of the most popular, talented horses of his generation.
Sire: Moscow Society (USA)
Dam: Meelick Lady (Ire)
Dam’s Sire: Duky
Breeder: Edward Joyce
Foaled: 10 May 1994
Race Record & Fact file
Prize Money: £1,167,892
Owner: Brian Kearney
Trainer: Mrs John Harrington