Racing: Istabraq's reign ends in grief

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The Independent Online

Hors La Loi III woke this morning as the new ruler of the hurdling kingdom. The Champion Hurdle of 2002 will not, however, be remembered for its victor but rather the sadness and brutality of the accession.

Istabraq, the old king, surrendered meekly after jumping just two obstacles, while his apparent successor, Valiramix, enjoyed the shortest of reigns.

The big grey horse appeared certain to win after jumping the third-last hurdle, but then clipped heels with one of his equine attendants and fell horribly to the Cotswolds turf. Tony McCoy's mount got up but did not see out the hour. A fractured shoulder meant he had to be destroyed.

This is how it seems to be when the greatest throne is the prize. The last time Cheltenham managed to stage a Festival, McCoy again was overwhelmed by trauma when Gloria Victis fell fatally in the Gold Cup.

There have been hundreds of winners between now and then but the champion jockey discovered again yesterday that the Festival can be the cruellest of climaxes. He was in tears, as were Dean Gallagher and Charlie Swan, the riders of Hors La Loi III and Istabraq respectively. For most, it was a day to cry.

We will not see Valiramix again and Istabraq has now gone too, to the Irish pastures of his owner J P McManus. The three-times champion found the years howling all around him yesterday, but he leaves not as a loser but the great monarch of this Gloucestershire realm for so many years.

Even as he entered the parade ring yesterday there was an image of the Irish horse's esteem. He was accompanied at each corner by a human handler, a sort of inverse royal carriage, as he walked in the light sunshine.

In truth, he looked rather worn even then, particularly in comparison with youthful Valiramix, who appeared as though he would fight you for a sixpence. There was something pugilistic too about the well-muscled Hors La Loi III, who circled with bristling intent.

Before the championship there was a parade from the past Champion Hurdle heroes, Make A Stand, Kribensis and Beech Road. Istabraq was to provide only a marginally more significant contribution to the race proper. Shoved along after slovenly negotiation of the first flight of hurdles, he managed just one more leap before Swan decided to bring the charade to a close. The 10-year-old was later found to be lame on his off hind.

Istabraq slowed to a standstill just past the bookmaking ring in which an army of support had forced him down to 2-1 favourite. There was, understandably, a reaction. There was applause, the sort of clapping that would flatter many winners at the Festival.

"When I jumped the first his action seemed to go and when he jumped the second I thought he might get a bit better but he didn't," Swan reported. The ground was so sticky. It was like it was holding me in. There was no decision to make. I just thought for the good of the horse I would pull him up. He just didn't feel good in his fast paces. It is unlike him not to take me along."

It was a sudden and disappointing conclusion to the months of preparation afforded the gelding at Ballydoyle, in Co Tipperary. "We said before the race that there was never any chance that this horse was to be hurt," Aidan O'Brien, the trainer, said. "I am very happy that he is well and it's a great sense of relief. At least we go home with our horse."

There could be no such sentiment from Martin Pipe and his loss of Valiramix was doubly savage in that the gelding appeared poised to provide a victory of some distinction.

Coming down the hill, the yellow beacon of McCoy's colours towered above the field, as did the facility with which his mount was travelling. Valiramix may indeed have been going too well. As the Ulsterman tried to cross behind Ansar he appeared to underestimate the scope of the grey's stride. The gelding went down and squatted on the floor like a hatching chicken. But this was not about birth. Quite the opposite.

The six-year-old was sedated and given pain killers before being moved to the racecourse's veterinary centre. Further examination found his injuries to be irreparable. "It's desperately sad," Pipe said. "The worst thing will be going back to see the empty stable tonight."

Istabraq, instead, has the opportunity of a long retirement. There was disappointment at Cheltenham yesterday, but that was a droplet on the great glories the horse had delivered previously. It was the fates who should have felt the greatest shame over their treatment of Valiramix.