Istabraq: Three-time champion hurdle winner who gifted Cheltenham to the Irish

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ISTABRAQ STILL knows how to pose for a photograph, but now retired at owner JP McManus’s Martinstown stud, he no longer has to contend with the flashbulbs of the winner’s enclosure.

For the three-time Champion Hurdle winner who gifted Cheltenham to the Irish, life away from the track couldn’t be more different.

A phone call to Martinstown to inquire of the horse gets the response: “Aidan O’Brien is the man to talk to you about that.”

So what was he like? “He was naturally brilliant,” says the Ballydoyle linchpin who was his former trainer. “He was intelligent and highly strung.

“He’d a lot of nervous energy; like most athletes at peak fitness, he liked to be left alone. At his peak, he could walk on a knife edge.”

Bred for the flat, he failed to impress on that terrain. Like all exceptional talent, though, it took someone exceptional to see it and that was the late John Durkan, who bought the horse for McManus at the Newmarket Sales in 1996.

While Durkan battled illness, he entrusted the horse to O’Brien. “He was only supposed to be with us while John got better,” says O’Brien.

Istabraq’s first major hurdle win came in 1997 when, under Charlie Swan, he took the Royal SunAlliance Novices Hurdle at Cheltenham.

“Charlie’s unbelievable. He’s a horseman as well as a jockey. The very first time he sat on him, he knew he’d be a good hurdler,” says O’Brien.

The pair were back in the winner’s enclosure the following year. The disbelieving voices of sportscasters struggled to keep pace with the dark horse who won by 12 lengths. The bookies were bled dry. “Istabraq knew he was a winner. He was determined to win and would be down in himself if he didn’t,” says O’Brien.

Swan dedicated the win to John Durkan who had died weeks earlier.

Istabraq went on to further victories, delighting Irish race-goers and riding into the history books with Champion Hurdle wins again in 1999 and 2000.

“Winning at Cheltenham was always incredible,” says O’Brien. “Our job was just to keep him contented. We just had to clear the way for him.”

However, when hot favourite for an unparalleled fourth victory in 2001, disaster struck when Cheltenham was cancelled due to the foot-and-mouth outbreak.

By 2002, though another year older, Istabraq’s army of fans still believed, but Swan was unhappy with him, even before the race. Before half way, knowing that Istabraq’s form had dimmed, the jockey pulled him up in front of the stands.

“Charlie knew how much to expect of him,” says O’Brien. “He knew how much JP and Noreen and the family loved that horse. . . It was unusual, but it was very special.”

Istabraq received a standing ovation, undimmed by the fact that many of those clapping had just lost thousands.

Stable head John O’Brien says the former champion likes going to the paddock with his pal Thunder these days.

“He’s in heaven at JP’s,” says Aidan O’Brien. And heaven is the quiet rolling pastures of Co Limerick.

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