Racing: Istabraq cruising towards Champion

A top-flight British contender for the Champion Hurdle has yet to emerge, but in Ireland it is a different story.

When the mind turns to the 1998 Cheltenham Gold Cup it is almost inevitable that the palms come together also and create a crackle of anticipation. Dorans Pride, The Grey Monk, Imperial Call, Suny Bay and See More Business have all advertised this year that the Blue Riband may be a cavalry charge of excellence at the foot of Prestbury Hill on 19 March.

It has been rather less easy to get emotional about the Champion Hurdle. Make A Stand, last season's victor, has already been invalided out of the race, and there has been no freshly scrubbed British dauphin forcing himself under the crown. Shadow Leader, Sanmartino and Wahiba Sands, pretenders three, have hardly covered themselves in glory recently.

The ante-post favourite for hurdling's championship kept his claims in place yesterday however, when Istabraq lengthened his winning sequence to eight at Leopardstown to further suggest the prize may well be returning to Ireland.

Istabraq is clearly reading the scripts that are tossed over the door of his box at Aidan O'Brien's yard. The plan all year has been for the five-year-old to follow a programme of four races before the Festival, a preparation culminating in the Irish Champion Hurdle, also at Leopardstown, next month.

It was not quite so straightforward when the horse appeared at Cheltenham in March. The former Flat inmate with John Gosden was made 6-5 favourite for the Royal SunAlliance Novices' Hurdle, a price that looked faintly ridiculous when he sweated up like a pig in a hammock before the race.

The three-quarters brother to Secreto, the 1984 Derby winner, was last of 16 as the field passed the grandstand, but then showed he was no Flat- bred dilettante as he survived a mid-air collision with Forest Ivory at the second last before responding to Charlie Swan's serious encouragement on the run-in.

Swan did nor have to be half as nasty yesterday. Sent off at 1-6, Istabraq picked his way through the Leopardstown quagmire to beat Punting Pete by a hard-held two and a half lengths. It was about as physically demanding as a game of draughts. "Istabraq did it well in dreadful going and there was no point in punishing him," O'Brien said. "He comes back here for the Irish Champion Hurdle and then it is Cheltenham after for the Smurfit Champion Hurdle."

When those days come there will be a little, splay-footed character who will be treated with the greatest of respect by the bookmakers. J P McManus, Istabraq's owner, may not be the most physically daunting figure to roam the racecourse but he is still just about the most feared. "Istabraq looked great today," JP said. "He is holding his condition well and seems to be enjoying his racing even more, as he has looked quicker and stronger each time this season."

The other horse to provide the wattage at gloomy Leopardstown yesterday was Florida Pearl, like Istabraq an animal who received laurels over his neck at Cheltenham in the spring.

The Festival bumper winner is not about to mess around with anything as inconsequential as flights of timber, and yesterday he beat a large field on his chasing debut. Florida Pearl, it must be said, is no stranger to considerable obstacles being placed in his way as he is a former point- to-point winner.

The even-money favourite had been schooled at the racetrack previously by Richard Dunwoody, who was again at the controls as his mount won by 20 lengths. "He has scope and size and the plan I agreed with Richard was that they would be up there with the pace and out of trouble," Willie Mullins, the winning trainer, said. "Once they had jumped the first two so well I was able to relax.

"He was very quick out there and I loved the way he sprinted home from the last when Richard asked him to lengthen. He has advised us to enter the horse in the Cathcart Cup as well as the Arkle Trophy and the SunAlliance Chase at Cheltenham."

As connections congratulated themselves on their great good fortune in the Leopardstown winners' enclosure there was also talk of yet another contest. Florida Pearl is such a promising beast that those around him are already asking for prices about the 1999 Cheltenham Gold Cup.