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'You always knew he was the best' - Istabraq and the Champion Hurdle hat-trick

Istabraq: the hurdling legend turned 30 on Monday
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Legendary hurdler Istabraq, a winner of three Champion Hurdles and 14 Grade 1s in the late 1990s and early 2000s, celebrated his 30th birthday on Monday, May 23. To mark the occasion, we have republished this article, which first appeared as part of the Racing Post's 'The Roar' series building up the 2022 Cheltenham Festival.

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He wasn't quite 'Himself', but he wasn't far off. With a little less interference from sheep, he would have been the undisputed king of the Champion Hurdle, but that's just a detail. The point is Istabraq became a festival legend and remains a fabled Irish institution: of that there is no doubt.

The son of Sadler's Wells wore the two-mile hurdling crown for three years on the trot, which is a good foundation for legendary status, even if four other horses had already done the same. That he did so in the iconic green and gold hoops of JP McManus helped to cement his achievements in the public consciousness. The fact he was denied his crack at an unprecedented fourth title merely added intrigue to the tale, and his name is still spoken of in reverently hushed or madly joyous tones whenever the Tuesday of the festival comes around.

Istabraq arrived at Aidan O'Brien's yard as an interesting four year-old off the Flat, rated 83 after winning the Bogside Cup at Ayr under Pat Eddery in the silks of Hamdan Al Maktoum, the highlight of an 11-race career with John Gosden.

He quickly established himself as a far more than interesting jumper, however, with a nine-race winning spree, including a Royal & SunAlliance Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival, leading up to his first stab at the Champion. There was a question in many minds as to whether the frantic two miles of the race would suit a horse who had already won over two miles five furlongs, but McManus was adamant and the die was cast.

With Charlie Swan in the plate – as he was for the horse's every run over obstacles – Istabraq landed the 1998 running by 12 lengths from Theatreworld, at the now inconceivable odds of 3-1. By the time he returned to defend the crown in 1999 – with another four domestic wins under his belt, following a memorable head defeat at the hands of Pridwell in the Aintree Hurdle – he was no better than a 4-9 shot, but although the margin of victory was reduced to three and a half lengths by the unfortunate Theatreworld, the level of superiority was there for all to see.

By now he had become a standing dish for the travelling Irish army and his bid for the treble was accompanied by far more excitement than trepidation.

Istabraq and Charlie Swan take the last on the way to winning the 1998 Champion Hurdle

"It was unusual with him that you always knew he was the best horse in the race, better than the rest," said O'Brien later. "And Charlie was so experienced, he used to ride him so well, always placed him properly and had him spot on at every hurdle, so it was always nearly expected that he would win, and when he was at his prime. It would have been very hard for any horse to travel with the pace he had, to jump with the fluency that he had, and then to fight the way he did. He got the trip really well, so he didn't have to be covered up, so when he was up for it, nothing could touch him."

With this soaring confidence in mind, and the fact his trainer declared him a horse with just enough nervous energy to make him very easy to get fit for a target, it was no surprise to see Istabraq lead on the bit at the last flight in the 2000 Champion Hurdle and quicken efficiently up the hill to complete his hat-trick, at the main expense of Hors La Loi.

The legend was secure, but it would have grown to epic proportions had those pesky sheep not appeared in the racecourse environs in February 2001. Connections believed they had Istabraq perfectly primed to add a fourth win in the main event, so the abandonment due to foot and mouth disease came as a bitter blow.

"I didn't ride him that much at home but the vibes from his work riders were very good, he was long odds-on, I don't remember anything coming out of the woodwork and we really fancied him," said Swan. Which was more than can be said for the lead-up to 2002, when doubts about the ten-year-old's wellbeing had surfaced before the race and he was pulled up lame before the third flight.

The nature of the legend may have been altered but the horse went down in folklore and will remain there for many years to come.

Read this next:

JP McManus: why Istabraq's win meant so much

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It would have been very hard for any horse to travel with the pace he had, to jump with the fluency that he had, and then to fight the way he did
E.W. Terms