Racing: Istabraq's return is enough for fans

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The Independent Online

The Cheltenham Festival, it is often said, would not be the same without the Irish. It would certainly be quieter.

A blind man could tell from which nation the winner had emanated if he judged from a point on the rail near the finishing line at Prestbury Park.

For this season's Festival, now in just over 10 weeks' time, it might be wise to have some cotton wool among the Cotswolds' survival kit. For, at this stage, Ireland can feel seriously emboldened by the troops at their disposal.

Like-A-Butterfly is arguably the most promising novice hurdler seen out this season, while there would be few more well received winners than Limestone Lad, who seems to run more often than your nose at this time of the year. James Bowe's nine-year-old was vanquished by Bannow Bay at Leopardstown on Friday, but then you are bound to lose occasionally with a programme as packed as his. The Lad remains a significant challenger for the Stayers' Hurdle.

The Ericsson Chase on the same card saw reductions in Cheltenham Gold Cup odds for both Foxchapel King and Alexander Banquet, further strengthening a team seeking to reclaim a Blue Riband last won for the Irish by Imperial Call in 1996.

In addition, there is Florida Pearl, who appeared a galvanised figure in his King George VI Chase win, while the ante-post market leader, largely by default it must be admitted, is Frances Crowley's Sackville.

However, the horse carrying the flag in front of Team Ireland in March will, once again, be Istabraq. The nine-year-old's success in Saturday's December Festival Hurdle at Leopardstown was no great thing of beauty, but it did satisfy Charlie Swan and Aidan O'Brien, who after all, are the duo which needs to be impressed.

In fact, in the context of Istabraq's display in the corresponding contest 12 months ago, this performance was a cause for great celebration. Then, the old horse was once again palpably unfit, and it showed. Istabraq may well have finished fourth had he not thrown himself to the ground at the final obstacle and that would have been the worst finishing position of his bedazzling career.

Jumping was once again a central issue on Saturday, though it was not Istabraq who fell, but rather Liss A Paoraigh, on paper his only legitimate challenger, who subsided at the second. The blemish which Istabraq always seems to throw in when he is not fully tuned and is competing in slow-run races came when he stepped at the third last.

Swan reported that the sun had been shining on the top of the hurdle and cast a shadow on the take-off side. Willie Carson and Frankie Dettori have most famously used light and shadow as excuse for failure. For Swan it was part of a winning debrief.

Rather like the race itself, Istabraq's competence at the last was more effective than pleasing to the eye. This, the doomsayers told us, was the obstacle which had claimed the horse in two of his last three starts, a hurdle which some had invested with a terrible significance of a Taxis or Becher's.

Well, Istabraq got to the other side and recorded his fourth win in the race, by a head from Bust Out, form which would not win a race on Blackpool beach. You would want a little more than this from your 4-11 shots but, it appears, that is all we are going to get before Gloucestershire in the spring.

Like another multiple Champion Hurdler in See You Then, Istabraq's competitive career will be kept to a minimum in an effort to secure maximum impact on the big day. Even his annual venture in the AIG Europe Champion Hurdle now looks a doubt. It will be straight to the Festival.

O'Brien sounded rather like he should have been in a sheepskin coat and drinking downstairs at the Winchester Club when he talked about "keeping miles off the clock'', but the believers will hold on to the comfort blanket of the Champion Hurdle victories of Hatton's Grace and Sea Pigeon as 10-year-olds.

There were vultures circling, though, in the aftermath of Saturday, with the prices of Valiramix and Landing Light, both impressive in their own distinctive way, cut by Ladbrokes. The former, a facile victor at Newbury, is 7-2 (from 5-1), while Landing Light, who showed the sort of grit in Kempton's Christmas Hurdle which all horses need to drag themselves up the Cheltenham hill, is 6-1 (from 7-1).

Istabraq is now a best-priced 13-8, with Coral, and we will have to take his condition and retention of ability on trust. While we can rely on O'Brien not to talk with a forked tongue, not even he will know precisely how far Istabraq has deteriorated during the near two-year gap since he won a Champion Hurdle. That, though, is a secondary question. The main one, for the time being, was answered on Saturday and Cheltenham can once again look forward to receiving one of the greatest of its champions.