Istabraq again looks sure to amaze in Grace

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No one wants to take on Istabraq. The dual Champion Hurdle winner will face just four rivals when he attempts to win the Hatton's Grace Hurdle for the third year running at Fairyhouse on Sunday.

No one wants to take on Istabraq. The dual Champion Hurdle winner will face just four rivals when he attempts to win the Hatton's Grace Hurdle for the third year running at Fairyhouse on Sunday.

Hatton's Grace (1949-1951) was the first of the four horses - Sir Ken (1952-54), Persian War (1968-70) and See You Then (1985-87) are the others - to win three Champion Hurdles since the race's inception in 1927 and it is odds-on - literally, at 4-7 - that Istabraq will become the fifth at Cheltenham next March.

For Aidan O'Brien's seven-year-old is the hurdler who has everything. A two-mile stayer on the Flat for John Gosden at three and four, stamina seemed sure to be Istabraq's forte over timber when, after being shrewdly purchased for 38,000 guineas by the late John Durkan at the Newmarket Sales in 1996, he went on to win the Royal & SunAlliance Novices' Hurdle over two miles and five furlongs at the 1997 Cheltenham Festival.

And the manner of his first Champion Hurdle victory in 1998 - he was always close up, kicked on three out and stormed home 12 lengths clear - suggested that here was a staying hurdler with the class to burn off the two-milers at their own trip.

However, remarkably, Istabraq seems to have become quicker with age. That is certainly the theory of Charlie Swan, his jockey who, against expectations, held Istabraq up for a relatively late run - producing him to lead jumping the second last before quickening three and a half lengths clear - in what had seemed an unsuitably slowly run renewal back in March.

As well as ever, judging by his bloodless victory on his reappearance at Tipperary recently, it is hard to see what can give Istabraq a race. Limestone Lad already twice beaten by him, Master Beveled, Nomadic and Derrymoyle - an exposed trio - are Sunday's only likely opponents and Champion Hurdle opposition is equally thin on the ground.

Barton, the Royal & SunAlliance Novices' Hurdle winner, is out for the season, Hors La Loi III, the Supreme Novices' Hurdle victor, has disappointed since leaving Martin Pipe to return to François Doumen in France, and Katarino, the Triumph Hurdle winner, was beaten in France on his seasonal debut and may instead be trained for the Stayers' Hurdle.

Progressive handicap hurdlers do win Champion Hurdles - For Auction (1982), Celtic Shot (1988), Beech Road (1989), Flakey Dove (1994), Collier Bay (1996) and Make A Stand (1997) - are all examples, but they do not win vintage renewals and although reports from Martin Pipe's stable suggest the last-named is on his way back, an on-song Istabraq would have got any of that sextet off the bridle in the paddock.

The Hatton's Grace Hurdle is just one of three Grade One contests at Fairyhouse on Sunday on a weekend when O'Brien introduces Yeoman Point, three times a winner on the Flat and already 12-1 favourite for the Triumph Hurdle with Coral, in Saturday's Fairyhouse Hurdle.

The Royal Bond Novices' Hurdle over two miles will provide an early pointer to Irish hopes for the Supreme Novices' Hurdle at Cheltenham next March, while Alexander Banquet, the 1997 Festival Bumper winner and already fancied for the Royal & SunAlliance (Novices') Chase next March, is among the entries for the Drinmore Novices' Chase over two and a half miles.

The trainer Peter Beaumont, meanwhile, has yet to deicide whether to run Young Kenny in the Hennessy Gold Cup on Saturday. Young Kenny may instead go for the Welsh National at Chepstow on 28 December. Young Kenny needs the going to be at least good to soft if he is to run at Newbury. Earthmover continues to attract ante-post support for the race. He was cut to 5-1 from 11-2 by William Hill and to 9-2 from 11-2 by Coral yesterday. Paul Nicholls, Earthmover's trainer, reports his horse, a winner over hurdles on his last two starts, in good shape. He said: "Everyone seems to be telling me he can't jump, but we'll see about that on Saturday."

HENNESSY GOLD CUP HANDICAP CHASE Coral: 9-2 Earthmover, 5-1 Spendid, 11-2 Hanakham, 6-1 Ever Blessed, 7-1 Djeddah, 8-1 The Outback Way, 9-1 Young Kenny, 10-1 Tullymurry Toff, 11-1 Fiddling The Facts, 12-1 Bettys Boy, 14-1 Suny Bay, 16-1 Step On Eyre, 18-1 Macgeorge, 20-1 The Last Fling, Step On Eyre, 40-1 others. William Hill: 5-1 Earthmover, Hanakham, 6-1 Spendid, 7-1 Djeddah, Ever Blessed, 8-1 The Outback Way, 9-1 Tullymurry Toff, 10-1 Fiddling The Facts, 12-1 Young Kenny, 14-1 Betty's Boy, 20-1 Macgeorge, Suny Bay Step On Eyre, 25-1 The Last Fling, 50-1 others.