Racing: Cheltenham Festival - Can Istabraq leap to greatness?

The Champion Hurdle favourite is being spoken of in the same breath as legends of the turf
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The Independent Online
JUST AS each generation grows up with its own fashions, so too does each new brood of punters cherish the horses of its youth. Whether they wore winklepickers, kaftans or safety pins, everyone likes to think that the champions of their own golden age were the finest of them all.

It is why the windows will steam up in bars across Cheltenham this evening, whenever someone dares to suggest that Istabraq could be the greatest horse ever to jump a timber hurdle. The real old-timers will sit up straight and remember Hatton's Grace and Sir Ken, who both won three Champion Hurdles in succession in the 1950s. At the next table, the post-War baby boomers may put the case for Persian War, another triple-champion from the late 1960s.

But it is the forty-somethings who will argue most fiercely, and insist that the hurdlers of the 1970s have never been surpassed before or since. Even punters too young to have backed them will know the names and the stories - Night Nurse, Monksfield and Sea Pigeon, dual champions all, and almost contemporaries. Between 1976 and 1981, no other horse could get near them at Cheltenham, and of the champions since, to most punters' minds, only See You Then might have fared any better.

Until now. Twelve months ago, the cheers for Istabraq started when he was still a speck at the top of the distant hill, so easily was he cantering away from his Champion Hurdle field. He is a very short price not simply to win tomorrow's 70th running of the hurdling championship, but to do so by at least seven lengths. He will (probably) become the first dual winner of the Champion Hurdle since See You Then, who won three between 1985 and 1987.

Finding a place for Istabraq among the greats of earlier eras depends, inevitably, on your point of view. But if there is one person who has had a very good look at most of the leading hurdlers of the last 25 years, it is Jonjo O'Neill, who won a Champion Hurdle on Sea Pigeon, beating Monksfield into second, and also rode Night Nurse on several occasions. His thoughts may come as a shock to the tap-room debating society.

"In my honest opinion, Sea Pigeon was the best of them [in the 1970s], because he had so much speed," O'Neill said yesterday. "He won two Champion Hurdles, he should have won three and possibly could have had four.

"But I think Istabraq is a bit special. He is as good, if not better and I can't see anything else winning on Tuesday."

That said, O'Neill also feels that "if Sea Pigeon was around now, he'd win six Champion Hurdles, because they don't go up the hill twice [the route of the race has changed] and the ground is always good [due to vastly improved drainage]. He'd have the ideal conditions. He was just born 20 years too early, and so was I."

But such is his respect for Istabraq that if there were a championship in the Twilight Zone with both horses entered and in their prime, and O'Neill had his pick, you suspect he might opt for the current champion.

"In one sense Istabraq is the better horse because you can ride him any way," he said. "You can make the running if you want to, or drop him out last, because he's got such a good attitude. Sea Pigeon had to be ridden to suit him. If you arrived too soon, or the race wasn't run at a proper gallop, you were in trouble. He should definitely have won the first Champion Hurdle he ran in, but I got there too soon on him. When you've got a horse that's adaptable, you've got the real McCoy."

If O'Neill is a little partial in his opinion of Sea Pigeon, few would blame him. Supporters of Night Nurse, however, will point out that his best Timeform rating, 182, is the highest ever awarded to a hurdler. He also recorded 20 victories in the space of just two championship seasons, in 1976 and 1977. These are difficult numbers to argue with, and it is also worth remembering that Night Nurse was top-class over fences too, finishing second to Little Owl in the 1981 Gold Cup and winning valuable handicaps including the Mandarin Chase.

The great unknown, of course, is what Istabraq may yet achieve. His winning distance last year, 12 lengths, equalled the record for the race, and it will be no surprise if he claims it for himself tomorrow. His most recent Timeform rating, following the 14th victory of his 16-race career, was 172, just 10lb shy of Night Nurse himself.

Both targets will be within sight if Istabraq produces the performance which his supporters have come to expect. And even if he does not quite mark himself down as the pre-eminent hurdler of the century, the latest generation of punters will surely have a champion whose honour will be defended in the pubs of Cheltenham well into the new millennium.

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