Racing: Swan's devotion to an equine god

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The Independent Online

History books, we had it confirmed yet again here yesterday, rarely tell the full story. They give you the details of winning and losing but they don't always tell you how it is when a great man, or in this case a great horse, touches everyone's soul.

That Istabraq had done this perhaps more profoundly than any Cheltenham champion since the peerless Arkle was confirmed by a huge communal sigh when the three-time winner of the Champion Hurdle was gently stopped by his jockey Charlie Swan after just two flights of hurdles.

Favourites who are pulled up are not generally cheered when they step tentatively away from a battleground they have come to dominate quite relentlessly. But you didn't hear a whisper of complaint when Swan made the decision which had been laid down for the moment when Istabraq first hinted that he had finally left the company of the equine gods. Rarely have there been such individual acts of emotion and devotion on a race track as when Istabraq, having drifted in the betting, surged back to 2-1 favouritism.

There was nothing rational about such wagering. The word from Ballydoyle was thunderously circumspect. Trainer Aidan O'Brien had talked of nightmare preparation, of stiffness, even arthritis and the owner, J P McManus, had spoken of celebrating three great victories whatever happened yesterday.

But even on the rails of a race track there are times when the compulsion to do the smart, winning thing gives way to a different, and perhaps even mystical impulse. It is to be right for all the wrong reasons, Right because you want something to happen so much you are prepared to bury logic. Some backed Muhammad Ali against Larry Holmes 22 years ago in the full knowledge that his slimmed down body was the result not of punishing work in the gym and on the roads but a caseful of diuretics. You knew you had blown the bet but to take another course would have been blasphemy and how could you look into his eyes if you had lost belief in him at such a moment of trial.

There was quite a bit of that on a bright afternoon which promised spring and one last journey along the peaks of the game by the 10-year-old wonder horse.

But when the errant dream was over, when reality returned with the sight of the 10-1 shot Hors La Loi III, whose normal circumstance was a dwindling view of Istabraq's rear quarters, coming in by three lengths, the miscalculation had been absorbed without complaint. The champion was cheered for every gingerly-taken step from the course as Swan first hacked him from the track, then dismounted. For Swan it was the moment some had speculated would mark the end of his brilliant riding career, but the 34-year-old Irishman had performed with all his old panache in the opening race, a thumpingly-profitable betting win for McManus on Like-A-Butterfly.

It was a beautifully-delivered opening punch from the Irish, and the deflation which accompanied Istabraq's farewell was only heightened by the fact that Barry Geraghty rode Moscow Flyer for his first win at the Festival in the second race.

Swan delivered a simple epilogue for Istabraq's career. "He was a great okay, and he didn't owe anyone a thing."

This was almost certainly O'Brien's last stint as a National Hunt trainer. "I know I'll never get his like again for National Hunt racing," said the trainer. "I feel relief that he wasn't hurt. We wanted to bring him here but we were never going to risk him getting hurt. Charlie said he landed on the back of his heels at the first – he was completely tight and stiff behind the saddle. He said he wasn't going to take a chance, and that was right."

McManus said that no lives had been lost – forlornly the impressive contender Valiramix who clipped the heels of Ansar, spilled his rider Tony McCoy and broke a shoulder, was being put down at roughly the same time – and that now he would get down to a serious celebration of those three victories.

"It was a pity the Festival was cancelled last year," added McManus. "Maybe he would have been in better shape last year. But that doesn't matter now. He's given us great years, and we'll always have those."

They also had deeper understanding of the impact of a magnificent horse. This was not so much a little death in the family. It was the departure of a god.