Worship at feat of a champion

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The banner rising from the crowd said "Istabraq For President" but, bearing in mind the track record of heads of government, that was surely an insult to the horse.

The banner rising from the crowd said "Istabraq For President" but, bearing in mind the track record of heads of government, that was surely an insult to the horse.

There can be few, if any, politicians who have ever generated such an outpouring of enthusiasm, affection and sheer delight as did the triple champion hurdler at Cheltenham on Tuesday afternoon. From off the grandstands people came tumbling, and not just Irish people. The faithful of all persuasions jostled, scrambled and picked up their skirts and ran towards the winner'scircle to catch a glimpse of their hero arriving in triumph. Being there, that was the important thing, being part of a moment of history.

There were a couple of exceptions. Istabraq may have brought a relationship to an end as one woman, tugged along by her partner, refused to hurry down a flight of steps on her peculiar, precarious high-wedge boots. "He's not worth twisting an ankle for," she whined, shaking her grip free from his. "He is so," hissed the man, as if the Pope had been insulted by an Orangeman, and bolted away into the throng.

And in the unsaddling enclosure an unsmiling, bowler-hatted steward listened to the waves of adulation and the "Olé-Olé-Olé-Olé" of the Ireland football anthem rolling like thunder round the amphitheatre and intoned: "I suppose it's good for racing", although every nuance of his voice and body language was implying otherwise, and that he would have been far happier with discreet applause and the audience keeping their station.

But overwhelmingly, the emotion sweeping around the racecourse that sunny, sparkling afternoon was upbeat. Istabraq's brilliance is not just good for racing. We don't just love a good horse, we love to love him, and when he wins it makes us very happy. It's an uncomplicated act of worship, entirely one-sided, for an animal like Istabraq, or Desert Orchid or Arkle before him, has no real relationship with the racegoing public.

His only bonds with humankind are with those closest to him, his trainer Aidan O'Brien and the others on the Ballydoyle stable team: Anita Harvey in the yard, Pat Lillis his workrider, David Clifford who takes him racing. And of course Charlie Swan, the jockey who has postponed hisretirement to ride him.

Istabraq gives those who watch him great joy, for his beauty as well as his overweening superiority. He provokes feelings of gratitude, for being able to enjoy him. And, among his personal friends, deep satisfaction, for although he is honest he is not straightforward, and keeping him on the right side of the asylum door is a proper feat of training. O'Brien invariably distributes the credit right down the line.

Some years ago I watched the wonderful filly Pebbles at exercise. She was a hot ride, but without malice, and as she fly-bucked and cavorted round the trotting ring her lad just sat there on the buckle end of the reins and let her get on with it. "If she wants to dance, or put her head down to look at a flower, I'm not going to stop her," he explained. "It's part of her and to put any block on her mind, to say 'No, don't' to her, might but a block on her ability."

So it is with Istabraq. He is afforded indulgences at home; for example, he is never tied up in his stable. If he wants to move, even when being tacked up or dressed over, he isallowed to. But he is not spoiled either, no mints or titbits. An unvarying routine in a calmatmosphere keeps him from boiling over.

"We try to keep him happy without letting him get too high an opinion of himself," said O'Brien, "but there's a fine line. At Cheltenham he was right on the edge. The slightest hassle and he would have blown up." Istabraq will not be joining the supermarketopening circuit.

The nature of horses is that, left to their own devices, their lives would revolve round eating, sleeping and procreation, punctuated with some play and intermittent bouts of running away from danger, real or perceived.

But by nature they are also obliging and biddable and, once programmed, they do not object to joining in our games. Some - Istabraq is one - seem to relish, even glory, in the competition and their own honed ability.

One of the notable features of last week was not only the excitement but the quickening realisation that the class of 2000 seemed a superior vintage, with the promise of stirring clashes ahead. Istabraq's bid for his unique Champion Hurdle four-timer; the rematch between the new chasing king, Looks Like Trouble, and the old, See More Business; the emergence of the young pretender Tiutchev in a cracking two-mile division; and the fencing debuts of Monsignor, Limestone Lad and Blue Royal.

There is one name missing, of course, and the death of any racehorse, let alone a highprofile one like Gloria Victis, raises an eternal moraldilemma. It may seem trite to dismiss it by saying death is the price they pay for life, but it is true none the less, for without racing there would be no thoroughbred. But it does not make the events at the second-last fence in the Gold Cup easier for anyone to bear. For the same reasons that horses bring usinfinite joy, they can bringterrible sadness.