Racing: Istabraq flop fails to deter O'Brien

THEY SAY that no-one ever remembers who finished second, so the Hatton's Grace Hurdle at Fairyhouse yesterday must be the exception to prove the rule. It was Limestone Lad who was led into the winner's enclosure afterwards, but all the attention was instead directed to the berth next door, where Ista-braq, the champion hurdler, was being unsaddled as a loser for only the third time in his 21-race career. There will be no greater surprise in jumps racing all year.

The question being muttered around the enclosures, meanwhile, was whether it was Istabraq himself, or his jockey Charlie Swan, who was responsible for the defeat. Limestone Lad had finished well behind Istabraq in his last outing, but with an extra half-mile to travel yesterday and rain soaking into the ground, Shane McGovern, his rider, set out to make the race a thorough test.

Swan was happy to sit well off the fierce pace set by McGovern, who at one stage was 20-lengths clear of Istabraq. When Swan asked the 1-7 favourite to reel his opponent in, though, the response was limited. He got to within five and a half lengths of Limestone Lad, but only as the winner was passing the post.

The race which really matters, of course, will take place at Cheltenham in March, over a two-mile trip and probably on a faster surface. Istabraq has looked a stone ahead of any hurdler in training in the last two runnings of the Champion Hurdle, and he remains odds-on to retain his crown once again. Only Hills, though, left his price unchanged yesterday at 4-7, and both Ladbrokes and Coral pushed him out to 4-5.

``Take nothing away from the winner, he's a very good horse," Aidan O'Brien, Istabraq's trainer, said. "The horse tired for sure." But Istabraq is still on course for Cheltenham, he said, and will have two more races before then, including the Irish Champion Hurdle in February.

It was a bad day to bet odds-on at Fairyhouse yesterday, as Stage Affair, ridden by Tony McCoy, failed to justify a price of 4-11 behind Moscow Flyer in a valuable novice hurdle. Alexander Banquet helped some punters out, though, winning at 7-4 in the novice chase.

Backers had a hint of the way the day might go as early as 6.20am, when Montjeu, the Arc winner and 1.7-1 favourite, was only fourth in the Japan Cup behind the locally-trained Special Week (2.4-1). Indigenous, from Hong Kong, was second, with High-Rise, last year's Derby winner, third for Godolphin.

"The trip to Tokyo was not entirely trouble-free," John Hammond, Montjeu's Chantilly-based trainer, commented later, "and I was not able to give him as much work as he perhaps needed prior to the race. He lacked a bit of match fitness." Many punters may feel that this news arrived at least 20 minutes too late.

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