Racing: Commentary - Istabraq lacks a Champion Hurdler's speed

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The Independent Online
As forecasted all round, we received dramatic input to the Champion Hurdle picture over the weekend. The predictions, though, originated from the Michael Fish academy of prophecy as the definitive, and unexpected moment, came when Dato Star blew away the opposition at Haydock on Saturday.

Malcolm Jefferson's gelding is now a top-priced 8-1 for hurdling's Blue Riband. Istabraq is now a best-priced 9-2 in the wake of his unconvincing victory in Ireland yesterday. It was evident at Leopardstown that a horse never changes its spots.

Istabraq, just like those shoppers who pull a tartan bag on wheels behind them, has never impressed as a animal to do things in a hurry. It was staying power, as much as anything, which allowed him to collect the Royal SunAlliance Novice Hurdle at the Festival last year.

Racehorses do not get faster as they get older, so it was jarring to hear that Aidan O'Brien, Istabraq's gifted trainer, believes his horse has discovered hitherto latent powers of acceleration this season. They were back in latency again yesterday.

Istabraq did not produce the most fluent round of his career and was outshone in that department by the novice His Song (who has admittedly won a point-to-point). His Song looked rather dangerous at the final obstacle before Istabraq, the 4-11 favourite, battled on for a length and a half victory.

There was a sense of apology as O'Brien analysed the contest. He said: "Istabraq has got very strong and was a bit heavy today. He wants to get competitive now and we will be working on that at home. His owner, J P McManus, mapped out a plan for Istabraq's preparation for Cheltenham and so far it is intact. The horse will be fitter for the Festival because he has only been idling at home."

Charlie Swan put the colourless display down to his mount's debilitating errors. He said: "He hit the second down the back and we were lucky to survive it. I had him running sweetly, but that mistake took him a while to recover from and get back on an even keel. He wasn't finding an awful lot after the last."

There were no such problems for Lorcan Wyer in Haydock's Champion Hurdle Trial. He just kicked Dato Star in the belly at the start and then sat back and enjoyed the view. The seven-year-old kept going until 20 lengths had opened up between him and the favourite, Collier Bay. Relkeel, the other fancied horse, was over 40 lengths back, but still goes for the Champion.

Wyer, the Steve Austin of the weighing room, will be hurt again though by the thought he will not be renewing the partnership at Cheltenham. Malcolm Jefferson was quick to establish yesterday that Eddie Callaghan, the stable jockey at Newstead Cottage Stables in Malton, will return for the ride in March. The trainers said: "He was injured yesterday and he will definitely get back on the horse. Lorcan gave him a lovely ride but Dato Star is just that and anybody could have ridden him yesterday. Even I could."

The ability of Dato Star has never been an issue. He is a fast horse, having finished second in a November Handicap. His flamboyant style of racing, however, has brought him into contact with injury. The gelding has twice had a hurdling campaign curtailed, 12 months ago straining his off-fore suspensory on unsuitably firm going. He will never be risked on such a surface again. Jefferson said: "The ground is a big thing for him and he will only run at Cheltenham if it is good jumping ground. And the softer the better. He just loves the soft. Dato Star is grand today and he won't have another race before Cheltenham."


Horse C H L T

Istabraq 7-2 4-1 7-2 9-2

Shadow Leader 6-1 6-1 7-1 6-1

Dato Star 7-1 8-1 6-1 5-1

Sanmartino 10-1 12-1 12-1 14-1

Collier Bay 14-1 16-1 16-1 16-1

Relkeel 16-1 20-1 - 16-1

Graphic Equaliser 16-1 25-1 20-1 20-1

C - Coral, H - William Hill, L - Ladbrokes, T - Tote