Istabraq back on track for Cheltenham


Istabraq dismissed midweek rumours surrounding his participation in the AIG European Champion Hurdle by slamming his Cheltenham critics with a thoroughly impressive display in the Grade 1 feature at Leopardstown today.

Leading bookmakers have shortened Istabraq's odds from 4/5 to 1/2 for the festival's opening day feature.

In the heaving winners enclosure, trainer Aidan O'Brien confirmed that Istabraq would be "heading straight to Cheltenham". Jockey Charlie Swan was optimistic of success at the March festival. "I think it is very realistic that we can win Cheltenham again."

Hardly the most competitive Grade 1 race this season, Istabraq had little difficulty in tactically outwitting his six rivals.

Rank outsiders Aerleon Pete and Have Merci set a steady pace from the off and O'Brien explained afterwards that the pace had suited his stable star. "The horse really loves strongly run races...he needed no extra work today, he just jumped the hurdles really well."

Racing comfortably in fourth throughout, Swan brought Istabraq (4/11) to the shoulder of Moscow Flyer before the second last. But the latter went crashing through that flight, badly hampering the weakening Have Merci in the process.

By racing wide, Istabraq had narrowly avoided a collision with the stricken Moscow Flyer and rounded the home turn with a two length advantage over the game Mantles Prince.

A smart jump at the last combined with nifty acceleration up the straight was sufficient for Istabraq to claim his fourth consecutive Irish Champion Hurdle. Mantles Prince was four-and-a-half lengths back in second while Penny Rich held off Stage Affair for third.

O'Brien, who confirmed the Smurfit Champion Hurdle on March 13th would be the next port of call, was suitably impressed with the performance. "I have no doubt there is more in him but hopefully he can keep himself in one piece.

"The rumours during the week didn't mean a whole lot...everyday is a big day. He is stronger and heavier this year but he is well able to carry the weight...I think there is a lot more to come."

Winning owner JP McManus, who flew in especially for today's feature, revealed that "anytime this horse runs I'm always nervous beforehand"

He added: "I'm pleased with what he's done and hopefully he will go on and do the business at Cheltenham."