Istabraq to wait for Cheltenham return


Race fans are a fickle mob. No sooner had unanimity been reached about a safe return being the main purpose of Istabraq's comeback race than the quibbles started about he managed it.

Sure enough, there was a hint of showjump at the fateful last, but Charlie Swan reported the sun was in the champ's eyes. And there was an impressive amount of survival instinct on display at the third last where Istabraq managed to reach his way over.

But still the bare facts of Saturday's Festival Hurdle are that a triple Champion Hurdler, who remains a 5 to 4 favourite to win a fourth, just beat a horse rated stones inferior who had been badly hampered at the second jump.

Liss A Paoraigh, who had been widely touted as the only possible threat to Istabraq, took a crashing fall and badly interfered with the following Bust Out. Barry Geraghty defied gravity to stay with the horse, and, considering the lengths lost, it was no wonder he returned claiming the incident cost him victory.

However, Aidan O'Brien gave a convincing display of a man who didn't so much care about the nature of the performance as the happiness of the horse. Yesterday, he was singing from the same sheet.

"Istabraq seems in very good form this morning. He had a gentle race and Charlie gave him a lovely, gentle ride," he said, before dealing with the proximity of the runner-up.

"The second is a very good horse," O'Brien declared. "What people have to understand is that Istabraq was there to just go around and come back in one piece. It was just a day out and we're all very happy with it."

Significantly, most bookmakers feel the same, leaving Istabraq unchanged at the head of the market. Whether that is due to satisfaction at what they saw on Saturday or the apparent absence of a credible challenger in Britain is debatable.

What appears under less debate, however, is whether the punters will have another look at the champ in the AIG on January 27th. O'Brien indicated Istabraq will go straight to Cheltenham, and yesterday stated: "At the moment I would have to say the same as I did after the race."

Bust Out's run from a dismissive 20 to 1 starting price was enough to send Ladbrokes scrambling for the chalk in order to slash his Pierse Hurdle odds to 11 to 2 clear favourite, but the indications are that Jessica Harrington's horse will miss the big handicap in favour of the AIG.

"He had to be pin-fired last season and I wonder if he should be risked in the rough and tumble of a race like the Pierse. He would be happier in a small field," the trainer said.

It was Swan who rushed to beef up the defences of the thousands who believe Istabraq will gain a 24th career victory over flights in the race that means most of all in March.

"He is as good as ever," said the man who should know, having ridden the horse in every one of his 28 hurdles starts. "Liss A Paoraigh's fall didn't help me. I was in a good position until then but after that he ran a bit free."

At the very least, Istabraq's Cheltenham credentials appear a lot more solid this morning than Beechcourt's. The former Festival Bumper favourite was taken out of the betting having finished last of four to Ar Muin Na Muice in the last race.

Yesterday, Beechcourt was sound and scoped clean, but the nature of his run on Saturday means that tests will continue at Michael O'Brien's yard.