Istabraq has style of Champion

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The Independent Online
The wild, impromptu party which followed Istabraq's win in the Royal SunAlliance Hurdle at Cheltenham was for many the finest moment of this year's Festival, and the good news after the second day of the big meeting here is that it might have been just a rehearsal for an even better celebration next year.

The field for the Stanley Cooker Champion Novices' Hurdle may have been weaker than anything you will find at Cheltenham, and the trip was half a mile further than the Champion Hurdle, but such was the ease of Istabraq's victory that all thoughts afterwards were of the 1998 championship. Except, that is, those of JP McManus, Istabraq's owner. Or so JP would have us believe.

"I really haven't thought about it," McManus said, though of course he knows as well as anyone that a passionate declaration of intent from Ireland's favourite punting son would spoil what little chance he might have of getting a worthwhile price for Cheltenham. "I suppose it would be a target," he added casually, "why not?"

Why not, indeed, given that Istabraq's combination of a fast, ruthless gallop and the lethal finishing kick which took him from last to first at Cheltenham make him an immensely difficult animal to beat. He is, without doubt, the second-best novice hurdler of the season, behind only the champion himself, Make A Stand, and also the only one with the potential to improve past Martin Pipe's hurdler.

"He certainly looks like he could be a Champion Hurdle horse," Aidan O'Brien, his trainer, said. "He'll be able to go with the pace all right, and the drop to two miles shouldn't be a problem."

Istabraq's victory came in just the second race of the day, but still he was completing a double for O'Brien, successful in the opener with Idiots Venture. This was another testament to the young trainer's talent, since less than 24 hours earlier, Idiots Venture had finished third in the BMW Chase. But there was not the slightest sign of fatigue as he galloped away from his field under top weight.

Even O'Brien, though, is not immune to sudden misfortune. Corket, his runner in the Heineken Gold Cup, the most valuable race of the meeting, came to the last alongside Noyan with the rest of the 18-strong field well beaten, but crashed through it at maximum speed. Trevor Horgan, Corket's jockey, was taken to Naas General Hospital, where he was unconscious on admission. His condition later improved slightly and he was responding to treatment.

After Corket's fall, Noyan was left to record a second successive win in the race for a British stable, but unlike David Nicholson, who saddled Billygoat Gruff a year ago, Richard Fahey, Noyan's trainer, operates at the humble end of the scale. Yesterday's winner is one of just five chasers in his Yorkshire yard, and the horse box which carried Noyan to Punchestown was driven by Fahey himself.

"We saved him for this," Fahey said. "It's not often that your plans work out, but today they have. I don't know how Hal McGhee [the winning owner] is going to get his money home, because he had a really good bet. I just hope he's got a big money belt." No figures were mentioned, but McGhee was smiling the half-dazed, half-delirious smile of someone who has just become a great deal richer in a very short space of time.

With Nicholson sending out Arctic Camper to win the bumper, this has already been an excellent meeting for the British, and there may be more to come today. Quaker's Field, impressive at Aintree, is the form horse in the four-year-old hurdle, in which Circus Star, Kerawi and Red Rajah complete the British team. In the Champion Stayers' Hurdle, Theatreworld, second in the Champion Hurdle, takes on Paddy's Return and Escartefigue, both of whom did well in the Stayers' Hurdle at Cheltenham.

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