Three holes left to play. For two sweltering days Jack Nicklaus and Tom Watson have been locked in conflict, battling toe to toe, yet remain inseparable at 11 under par, 10 shots clear of the strong British Open field floundering in their slipstream.
Watson, keenly aware of the drama unfolding at that time in this place, pauses for a moment, turns to his opponent: “This is what it’s all about Jack.” History still remembers that day as ‘the duel in the sun’.
Foreman and Ali are eight rounds into the ‘Rumble in the Jungle,’ when George connects with another decent looking shot to the jaw.
Ali rides it, leans into his opponent and taunts. “Is that all you got, George? They told me you could punch.” History still remembers that night as ‘rope a dope’.
Barry Geraghty has just eased Moscow Flyer into the lead on the approach to the third last in the Tingle Creek Chase.
Behind him the two-mile champion, Azertyuiop and the young pretender Well Chief are being manoeuvred into challenging positions, ready to swallow up the old warrior in the straight.
Geraghty takes a pull on the reins and takes what trainer Jessica Harrington would later describe as a “long, leering look round”. National Hunt Racing. This indeed was what it was “all about” and two more dopes were about to be well and truly roped. History doesn’t quite remember this day as ‘the smack down at Sandown’, but maybe it should.
Every leap and gallop in Moscow Flyer’s 10 years on earth have led to this moment and like Nicklaus and Ali, he has been blessed by the talent of his enemies. And there they all are, in the right place at the right time, ready to play their part at the climax of one of the greatest two-mile chases ever run.
Harrington admitted: “Without a shadow of doubt, I think the day he was at his best was Sandown in the Tingle Creek. That day it all went like clockwork against two other brilliant horses. After that, I’d say regaining his Champion Chase (2005) was his best day. He was the horse of a lifetime. I’ll never have another like him, I know that.”
Moscow Flyer died last month aged 22 — almost exactly a dozen years on from that unforgettable day at Sandown and 18 years after the John and Jessica Harrington had ‘stolen’ him for 17,000 punts at the 1998 Derby Sale at Fairyhouse.
A new owner, Brian Kearney, had asked them to buy him a horse on a budget of 20 grand.
Attracted by the good looks and robust confirmation of Lot 432, a Moscow Society four-year-old gelding, the Harringtons were surprised and delighted to bring him home at the price they did.
Although he didn’t know it at the time Brian Kearney had just won the owners’ lottery and had bought himself a legend.
The staff at the Kildare yard, who well knew how to separate equine geese from swans, immediately loved the animal that walked down the ramp that day. His athleticism, the way he moved, his sense of presence and great physique, all the traits that were to sustain him through his career were already there.
He contested four bumpers through the spring of ’99 without ever finishing closer than third. His trainer was disappointed he hadn’t been good enough to win one of them and by the end of his first season had downgraded her hopes from having a “great horse” to the possibility of just having a “decent one”.
However, once they stuck some hurdles in front of him all was to change.
Few steeplechasers arrive at greatness without a diversion through the transit lounge of hurdling and Moscow Flyer was no exception. He immediately surpassed his bumper form when asked to leave the ground and easily won three novice hurdles before Christmas, including the Grade One Royal Bond at Fairyhouse. When he rounded off his novice hurdle year by beating a good field in the Champion Novice Hurdle he had firmly established himself as one of the most promising young horses on the islands.
His second season, meant to be his Champion Hurdle year, can best be described as messy. Foot and Mouth put paid to Cheltenham and the abiding memory is his three anticlimactic duels with Istabraq where one or other of them failed to finish. By the end of the year he was rated a solid 151 over hurdles, still nearly two stone inferior to the great Isty, and a transition to fences for the seven-year-old was inevitable.
And transition he did.
From then until his final race four years later his finishing position was either 1st or a letter — ‘F’ for fall or ‘U’ for unseated rider. There were a total of 14 ‘firsts’ with nine of them in Grade Ones, including champion two Chases at Cheltenham and Punchestown, an Arkle Chase and two Tingle Creeks at Sandown. It was in the second of those Tingle Creek chases when Geraghty took that legendary tug on the reins.
This was a milestone race for the ageing Moscow who had lost his champion’s crown earlier that year to Azertyuiop, just a day after Well Chief had won his Arkle.
Uncomfortable questions were being asked. Was he past it? Was he still good enough? Had he recovered from his Cheltenham mishap? Was he good enough to win the Queen Mother again at an elderly 11 years of age?
In this cauldron of uncertainty Geraghty took that long, leering look over his shoulder, like a provocative move of a chess Grandmaster, forcing a response from his rivals.
Ruby reacted by driving Azertyuiop closer as they went into the fence and it also encouraged Timmy Murphy to move Well Chief a little closer. Moscow didn’t jump it great but one of his defining characteristics as a chaser was his speed of exit from a fence. He picked up a length and his jockey took yet another look behind him.
“This is what it’s all about.”
He pinged the last two fences, and his rivals never landed a blow. Barry Geraghty was already standing up in the stirrups waving his whip at the stands way before the finish line.
“Is that all you got? They told me you could punch.”
Moscow Flyer did go on to regain his Champion title the following spring, beating Well Chief and Azertyuiop even more decisively than at Sandown. He’d hit a rating of 182 which placed him in the ranks of the greatest ever steeplechasers and lived out his last days happily greeting visitors to the National Stud.
His connections were much too courteous to describe that Tingle Creek as the ‘Smackdown at Sandown’, so history remembers it now through Barry Geraghty’s more dignified representation.
“This,” he recalled, “was the race of races.”