If it was still, in the opinion of most, merely a question of how convincingly Istabraq would complete a pure hat-trick of victories in the Champion Hurdle, rumours were thicker than starlings on a telephone wire.
Already in possession of a confirmed report that the great Irish hero had developed a nosebleed, his many supporters had further cause for concern when developments were said to have cast serious doubts in the minds of Istabraq's bold owner, J P McManus, and his brilliant trainer, Aidan O'Brien.
Returning from a reconnaissance under the stands, a trusted envoy deepened the gloom over proceedings with information to suggest that Istabraq would not have been risked in a race of lesser importance. With no time in which to properly investigate the source of Istabraq's problem, a procedure that would have involved the use of anaesthetic, O'Brien decided to take a chance.
Anyone who spends time poking around race-tracks gets, in addition to a view of human nature which is at once more tolerant and less rosy than any endorsed by the clergy, frequent opportunities to question the judgement of jockeys, the competence of trainers and the indifference of stewards to obvious fouls in running.
Nobody in their right mind gave credence to the idea that a plot had been hatched to improve the odds posted against the 8-15 favourite and, despite the rumours, Istabraq went off unbackable in most wallets.
It was one of the best days, bright and mild and the going good enough to have provided a record time in the previous race, the Arkle Chase won handsomely by Tiutchev.
Now, from the packed stands, thousands watched expectantly, sending up a cheer when Istabraq appeared on the course after coming under scrutiny in the parade ring.
It was noticed there that while the other contenders and their pilots were content to adopt the air of strollers at a garden party, Istabraq was being reminded of the task in hand by the coiled attention in Charlie Swan's body. "They're ready for it all right," a veteran observer said.
Whether Swan felt as confident in the race as he appeared when first coming under public gaze in the saddle, doubts certainly existed in the crowd when his ultimately triumphant tactics became clear.
The big difference between this and Istabraq's two previous successes in the premier hurdling classic is that he was in a real race, not a procession for his talent.
When Mick Fitzgerald kicked on at the top of the hill taking the Nicky Henderson-trained Blue Royal clear, Swan answered along the rail as the rest of the leading group tried to stay in touch.
Two flights out and the roar for Istabraq's progress rose up over Prestbury Park.
Under Swan's immaculate guidance - he never once found it necessary to apply the force of his whip - Istabraq came to the last with a wall of sound building up in front of him. A neat clip over and that was it, the hill, no problem.
Can any horse have come home to such a roar, one that must have been heard on the distant hills.
In the great rush to be present when Istabraq came in, a large Irishman on the trot shouted back at those of his friends who were off the pace: "Come on, come on," he roared. "Let's be there for the king."
The festivities proceeded in a fashion familiar to Istabraq's vast following. Interlopers gatecrashed the unsaddling enclosure forming an unstoppable wedge behind him, a rolling maul of enthusiasm. Others, in small groups, spoke wondrously of Istabraq's performance.
"It was the sort of race he needed," somebody said. "A real race to bring out the best in him."
Homage was duly paid to a great horse and a verse sung in his praise.
As with the gallant mare Dawn Run in the Gold Cup 14 years ago, even those who opposed the winner could be happy with the outcome.Reuse content