- Breeding: b g Sadlers Wells – Betty’s Secret (Secretariat)
- Races: 29, Wins: 23
- Foaled: 23 May 1992
- Trainer: John Gosden, AP O’Brien
- Owner: JP McManus
The Istabraq Story
When Willie Carson considered retirement it was never really likely that the exploits of one ‘Istabraq’, of whom he was regular partner, were going to delay that decision. But who could blame him, a horse rated on the wrong side of one hundred would hardly set the heart of the four times Derby Winner alight.
As the fairytale goes, it was the heart of the late John Durkan which beat a little faster when he envisaged the son of Sadlers Wells and Bettys Secret applying himself to the winter code. Durkan had a good eye for a horse and he duly convinced JP McManus to part with the money to prise Istabraq from the Gosden stable. ‘This horse will win next years Sun Alliance’, he asserted. McManus listened.
Shortly afterwards Durkan was gripped by illness (one he was destined never to recover from) and Istabraq found temporary housing in the stable of the all conquering Aidan O’Brien yard.
More History of the Racing Legend Istabraq
Istabraq’s first outing over hurdles was by no means an easy assignment. On November 16th 1996 at Punchestown he found the Punchestown Festival Bumper winner, Noble Thyne, from the Paddy Mullins’ stable, a head too good after a couple of bad mistakes at the last two flights of hurdles.
The ability was there for all to see and a fortnight later Istabraq was installed 11/8 favourite for the re-match. Being the bet of the season for many shrewd punters Istabraq recorded what was to be the first of many NH successes with his Punchestown conqueror trailing 19 lengths in his wake.
Two more outings and two more successes saw Istabraq in fine fettle for his first assault on Cheltenham. Getting on his toes before the start of the 2m5f Sun Alliance hurdle and giving most of the field a sizeable headstart to boot, Istabraq had a lot of work to do when they came down the hill. Jumping the second last, though, Charlie Swan looked confident and Istabraq raced all the way to the line to compound what John Durkan had told JP.
Istabraq graced the Punchestown crowd for their end-of-season festival, obliged with consumate ease and retired for the rest of the 96-97 season.
It was October before we saw sight of him again and it was far from the Stayers Hurdle that Aidan O’Briens mind was now. This fella has the speed for the Champion, he assured us. Three meaningless victories before the turn of the year were no indicators for Champion Hurdle success but they showed JPs star to be in good heart. Surely, the Irish Champion Hurdle would be a more significant pointer.
At Leopardstown Istabraq was to meet the crack Novice, His Song, from the Mouse Morris stable. The giant gelding was very highly thought of at home and was to prove Istabraqs main danger.
As many had expected the final furlong turned into a battle between the Sun Alliance hero and the rising star from the novice ranks. His Song made Istabraq pull out all the stops and inevitably questions were raised as to whether the newly crowned Irish Champion had the speed for the English equivalent.
Aidan O’Brien assured us, JP agreed. The Champion was the target.
Installed for the first and last time at a price as generous as 3/1, Istabraq carried the hopes of the Irish racing contingent as he tried to make it two from two at the Cheltenham festival.
Stablemate Theatreworld was a relatively unfancied 20/1 shot but O’Brien stated in the weeks prior to the race that he was the only danger to the new stable star. Theatreworld had finished half a dozen lengths shy of the winner, Make A Stand in the 1997 running of the Champion.
As the race unfolded, Istabraq was in a prominent position and rounding the home turn Charlie Swan sent Istabraq on his way. Without having to be pressured unduly he skated home a full twelve lengths clear of Theatreworld with I’m Supposin back in third.
The Champion was crowned.
The multitudes of Irish that annually descend on The Festival huddled around the parade ring to greet the newly crowned king. For O’Brien, the day, two years previous, when he had been stopped by security from entering the winners enclosure to greet his first festival winner, Urubande, were a distant memory. Everybody in Cheltenham, everybody in the UK and Ireland now recognised the new Master of Ballydoyle. His name was synonymous with success, everywhere you looked in the racing pages the name of Aidan O’Brien stood out.
O’Brien didn’t let the success go to his head and he flew home that evening to oversee operations at home and flew back the following morning after the early gallops to tend to his runners for the day. The successos any horse, including Istabraq, would not interrupt his meticulous schedule.
In one final run that season in the Martell Hurdle at Aintree, Istabraq cruised upsides Pridwell looking all over a winner only to be outbattled in the finish to go down by a head. McManus was not downhearted. O’Brien seemed almost non-chalant. The horse had been aimed for one race and one race only. The Aintree race was over 2 and a half miles in desperate conditions and Charlie had not been too hard on the Champion.
Two runs in November ’98 and an annual trip to Leopardstown at Christmas added three more to Istbaraqs tally. His stiffest task for some time was on its way and O’Brien knew it.
The Sun Alliance hurdle champion of ’98, French Holly – so impressive in his wide margin vistory at the festival – was an intended runner in the ‘AIG Europe’ Irish Champion hurdle. Trainer, Ferdy Murphy was bullish about his chances – he hadn’t been impressed by the Champion (or so he was saying).
When the tapes went up French Holly, under Adrian Maguire, made most of the running and apart from one bad mistake jumped better than he had for a while. Supporters of Istabraq never really had any anxious moments and when Charlie asked the Champion to catch the long time leader he responded with sublime ease.
Charlie looked around for dangers but saw nothing only Adrian Maguire working hard on the pretender to the crown.
If Ferdy Murphy had the misguided idea that things had not quite gone his way on this occasion and he would have a great chance of turning the tables at Cheltenham, O’Brien had the audacity to claim that the Champion was not fully fit because he had not been tested in a race all season and that he would go to Cheltenham that way.
Champion day came again and, as odds on favourite, nobody (except, perhaps, Murphy) had really expected any other result than another victory for JP. For the third year running Theatreworld had been virtually ignored and again O’Brien asserted that he was the only danger to the Champion.
Istabraq took a prominent position once more and burned off the challenge of French Holly quite easily. As the line approached Theatreworld was running on with great gusto and there were only 3 and a half lengths between the stanlemates this year. The margin was different but the result the same.
For the third time Theatreworld played second fiddle and for the second time Istabraq returned to the winners enclosure as champion. Further to the champions return he had received when he quite simply demolished the field 12 months previously, Istabraq was greeted by a song written in his name and to the tune of ‘Sean South from Garryowen’ – ‘Istabraq from Ballydoyle’.
The immediate talk was of three in a row and an odds-against qoute was nowhere in sight. We may be many months from that dream and a lot of water must pass under the bridge between now and then but ‘touch wood’ we’ll be there and he’ll be there and we can all sing his praises once more – Istabraq from Ballydoyle !
Istabraq began the defence of his crown at Tipperary in October 1999. Always travelling strongly and jumping fluently, Aidan O’Brien’s outstanding hurdler strolled to a seven-length victory from the front-running Limestone Lad in the race sponsored by owner ‘JP’ McManus in memory of his late father.
This was the third year in a row for Istabraq to resume with a comprehensive win in the IR£60,000 John James McManus Memorial Hurdle and his regular jockey Charlie Swan’s immediate post-race reaction was: “He felt stronger than ever.”
However, the following month Istabraq suffered only the third defeat of his hurdling career when beaten into second by Limestone Lad in the Duggan Brothers Hatton’s Grace Hurdle at Fairyhouse. Shane McGovern always had the winner at the head of affairs and at one stage held a 20-length advantage over the 1-7 favourite. Jockey Charlie Swan and his illustrious partner gradually whittled the down the advantage but, despite Swan’s urgings, Istabraq was unable to peg back his rival.
“It was like making the running out in front with the wind and rain, the leader had opened up such a huge gap,” said Swan on dismounting.
O’Brien admitted Istabraq was a weary horse at the end of his exertions. “The horse tired for sure,” he said before confirming his charge would have two more runs before defending his Smurfit Champion Hurdle crown. “He’ll run at Leopardstown and take in the Irish Champion Hurdle,” the trainer said.
Istabraq was soon back to winning ways again. Sent off at 1-8 to land his third AIB Agri-Business December Festival Hurdle, Charlie Swan’s mount looked back to his best, after his shock Fairyhouse defeat, as he strode 15 lengths clear of Derrymoyle in the closing stages. However, his closest pursuer, Knife Edge, blundered away whatever chance he may have had at the last flight. Nevertheless it looked more like the old Istabraq and he was already well in command as Knife Edge slipped on landing.
“We went a good pace with Derrymoyle taking us along nicely,” said Swan. “Istabraq was much sharper today and very accurate in the air.”
Trainer Aidan O’Brien seemed relieved that his stable star had got a proper race under his belt in the build-up to Cheltenham.
“The nice, even pace was a help. When Istabraq is competitive like that, he’s twice the horse,” he commented. “This was a very professional performance by Istabraq and Charlie. He goes next to the AIG Europe Champion Hurdle back here next month and then hopefully we will be right on target for Cheltenham.”
When it was put to O’Brien that Limestone Lad was also being aimed at the Leopardstown race, he said: “It is great for everyone to see them racing together. It’s good for Irish racing.”
On January 23rd 2000 Istabraq produced a majestic display in the AIG Europe Irish Champion Hurdle at Leopardstown. The dual Smurfit Champion Hurdle winner’s aura of invincibility had taken a knock when the gelding was defeated by Limestone Lad at Fairyhouse in November, although he did return to winning form here over Christmas. Limestone Lad once again lined up against Istabraq in this Grade One contest and set out to make the running. Charlie Swan did not want to give James Bowe’s front-runner too much rope and tracked him in second place.
Shane McGovern slowed the pace aboard Limestone Lad in the back straight and then kicked on with three flights to jump in an attempt to stretch the field. However, Istabraq had the move covered and cruised to the front on the bit after the turn for home.
Jumping smoothly, Aidan O’Brien’s charge lengthened clear with the minimum of assistance from Swan and passed the post four lengths clear of Stage Affair, with Knife Edge back in third. Istabraq, who was winning this event for the third successive year, is quoted at 1-3 by Ladbrokes to emulate that feat at Cheltenham in March. O’Brien was understandably pleased with Istabraq’s performance.
“You have to be pleased with that,” the trainer said. “He will now go straight to Cheltenham. He was very impressive and he’s every bit as good as last year.”
Winning owner JP McManus echoed the handler’s sentiments. He said: “I’m delighted with that performance. It’s a joy to own a horse like him. When you have a few slow ones you appreciate having a star.”
In March 2000 Istabraq cemented his place in National Hunt folklore when powering up the hill to land his third successive Smurfit Champion Hurdle. The Irish raider had been the subject of a pre-race injury scare but he looked as good as ever when the tapes went up.
Always going well under Charlie Swan, he cruised upsides leader Blue Royal at the last before Swan pushed the accelerator button to put the result beyond doubt. Istabraq becomes the fifth horse to win three Champion Hurdles after Hatton’s Grace, Sir Ken, Persian War and See You Then. He also becomes the first horse since Arkle to triumph at four successive Cheltenham Festivals as he landed the Royal & Sun Alliance Hurdle in 1997.
He was returned as the 8-15 favourite with Hors La Loi second at 11-1 and Blue Royal third at 16-1. The race was run at a frantic pace from the outset with 1997 hero Make A Stand blazing the trail in front and at one point holding a 20-lengths advantage. But he started to come back to the field at the top of the hill at which point last year’s Triumph Hurdle winner Katarino took over. But Swan was simply biding his time before he unleashed Istabraq’s devastating late run to clinch a famous four-lengths victory which sparked amazing scenes of celebration in the winner’s enclosure. Winning owner J P McManus was nearly overcome with words with the tumultous reception given to the Irish legend.
“I can’t describe the way I feel. The reception was unbelievable. He’s a real hero”.
He joked that he had a nosebleed himself when he discovered the news that Istabraq had lost blood in the lead-up to the race. I knew that Aidan would make the right decision whatever it was. He’s done the right thing.”
Asked whether Istabraq would attempt a fourth straight Champion Hurdle victory, McManus replied: “Lets’s celebrate the third win first”.