Racing: Bred to win a Derby, destined for greater things

Click to follow

Istabraq, depending on translation from either the modern or ancient Arabic, means alternatively silk or lightning. Both are appropriate for the smooth-jumping horse with the punishing acceleration, the horse who has become one of the most celebrated racing figures of the modern age.

It will most certainly be hard to reconcile the champion we see this afternoon as a one-time failure. Yet that is his story. Istabraq might bestride the National Hunt arena, but it was as a Flat beast that his career was intended. And in the summer game, the great horse certainly underachieved his chromosomes.

The little bay was foaled at the Derrinstown Stud, north-east of Dublin, in 1992. His father was Sadler's Wells, the most influential sire of the modern era, and his mother Betty's Secret, a parental stew which made the new born a three-parts brother to the 1984 Derby winner, Secreto. The family tree suggested Istabraq was a potential Derby winner.

Yet when John Gosden received this shining pedigree in Newmarket, he found that not only was its owner too backward to be trained as a Classic horse but also that he was rather slow. "He was an immature horse and he was what we call one-paced," Gosden said yesterday. "He needed to be prominent in his gallops, but he was to make up into a nice staying horse, a late-maturing type. He might not have been up to Ascot Gold Cup standard, but I felt like he was the sort who could have run big races in something like the Doncaster Cup."

In all, Istabraq ran 11 races on the Flat, recording two wins. He was ridden by Gary Hind, Tony McGlone, Pat Eddery, Richard Hills and Willie Carson. The last-named has sat on a lot of good horses. But he does not include Istabraq among them.

"He was a fantastically bred animal but he certainly did not show any signs while he was in training on the Flat of being a superstar," the Scot said yesterday. "He was a just a dour galloper, but it might have been that he was not mature enough.

"You have to put things into perspective. The top National Hunt horses are nowhere near the class horses of the Flat and, obviously, jumping hurdles allows him to have a breath and it suits him."

Istabraq's last contest on the Flat was in the Penny Lane Handicap at Haydock in June of 1996. Six months later the magical mystery tour had begun with hurdle race successes in December and, by the following spring, the legend had started in the Royal & SunAlliance Novices' Hurdle.

In between, J P McManus had parted with 38,000 guineas to secure the horse at the Tattersalls July Sales. He was transferred to Aidan O'Brien's yard in Ballydoyle. The new purchase then parted with valuables of his own. "One of the keys was gelding him because he was quite an anxious horse," Gosden says. "He still gets a little sweaty even now. The operation knocked a lot out of him initially, but, in the end, it was the making of the horse."

The neutered Istabraq has gone on to create a story unimaginable to even the most fertile of minds, and all those who once discounted the horse will be behind him this afternoon. "It's going to be difficult, but all the racing fraternity is with Istabraq," Willie Carson says. "It looks like he might be about to achieve something special, but then he was bred to be something special."