Istabraq to return for more


A trickle of blood turned into a river of joy when Istabraq entered history with a third successive Smurfit Champion Hurdle at Cheltenham yesterday and already the objective is to come back next year and make it four. Not even Persian War or Sir Ken could do that, nor could the other Irish treble winner Hattons Grace but the rules don't seem to apply to Istabraq.

Aidan O'Brien admitted if it had been any other race, Istabraq would not have run after the nose bleed scare of Monday evening. The Ballydoyle trainer also admitted he had endured the most anxious 24 hours of his life but did Istabraq care? Did he hell.

He didn't just beat the opposition, he broke the course record and did it all with a panache rarely seen since the distant days of that equine demi-God, Arkle.

Even that great horse couldn't win at the Cheltenham festival five years in a row. Istabraq is just a best priced 6 to 4 to return victoriously next year.

If anyone can see a prospective challenger to his crown, they are staying very quiet after what Istabraq did to the best around yesterday. Make A Stand exhibited all the exuberance of a horse who hasn't raced since winning the championship in 1997 and set a scorching pace that saw him clear at half way.

Charlie Swan, who would have been less than human if he hadn't had his nerves rattled by all the pre-race worry, settled Istabraq on the inner, possibly a ploy to ease as much as possible any pressure on any suspect blood vessels. He needn't have worried. While Make A Stand burst a gut in front, Istabraq jumped with all his customary fluency and eased behind the leaders coming down the hill.

Make A Stand weakened but Blue Royal still looked potent, as did the staying on Hors La Loi, but Stage Affair had had enough at the second last. Sticking to the inner, Istabraq cruised up to Blue Royal, touched down just ahead at the last and just had to be shook up by Swan to ignite instant delirium. But while the crowd exalted, the primary emotions of his connections were relief and admiration at what the horse had achieved off less than perfect circumstances.

"We knew the fire was in him but we didn't know if all the petrol was," said O'Brien. "It could have been a disaster but thank God it worked out. The flat season will seem easy after this!"

He added: "Our head said we should not run him but our heart said we must run and try for a third. We owed it to the horse because this is a very special horse, a horse in a lifetime." Istabraq is certainly the most profitable horse in Irish jump racing history and allowing for the Sterling differential, yesterday's first prize of £108,725 takes him past the £1 million mark in earnings.

JP McManus wasn't thinking such monetary thoughts, however, and revealed that he hadn't backed his champion even when he started to drift in the betting ring. "I couldn't have backed him. Even at evens, I wouldn't have backed him because I'd never have forgiven myself if he had been beaten. When I got the phone call on Monday, my heart was in my mouth and while my vision wasn't too good through the race, I was just happy that Charlie didn't have to get after the horse early on," McManus said.

Swan was happy too after winning his 14th festival race and helping Istabraq take almost half a second off Make A Stand's three-year-old track record. "You have to block concerns out of your mind and this is great, dreams do come true. I'll have to get tips off Aidan on how to my own horses like that. We'll have to discuss it but I imagine we'll be back hoping for four next year," he said.

That's less than happy news for the others but Hors La Loi's trainer Francois Doumen is looking to the future with a certain confidence. "I feel he was just two weeks short of his best but now he has shown how good a horse he is," Doumen said while Blue Royal's trainer Nicky Henderson was looking to next year's festival and fences.

"I know where next year's Arkle winner is - that's him just standing there. I've always said he is a serious horse," said Henderson. The difference was clear. Blue Royal proved something yesterday. His conqueror doesn't have to prove anything. It's the way with record breakers.