Racing: Istabraq in sweat heats up Festival

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WHEN ISTABRAQ sweats then everything gets wet. Racing rivals become beaten, perspiring beasts in his wake and the record books get sploshed with fresh ink.

The Irish horse won the Champion Hurdle here yesterday, just as he had done by a record-equalling 12 lengths 12 months ago. He became the first horse from his land to collect consecutive championships since Monksfield 20 years ago. And he did it drenched in the milky flow of his labours. "I'm very relieved he won because he got worked up and sweated profusely," Aidan O'Brien, the winning trainer, said. "It's a relief."

The little horse had been led round the paddock by a breathing comfort blanket in the shape of his stablemate, Theatreworld. Moisture immediately began to marble on his neck, but then this was not an ordinary Festival day. The skies were clear, the thermometer largely red and a heat haze bounced off the top of Cleeve Hill.

Most importantly for those behind the 4-9 favourite, his four little white-stockinged feet were not dancing in anticipation. "I wasn't worried when he sweated up in the paddock because it was a very hot day," Charlie Swan, the jockey, reported. "And he was not at all jig-joggy in the parade."

It was an unusually languid beginning to a Champion Hurdle. Grey Shot and City Hall were the grey bookends to Midnight Legend in the early, torpid stages. Istabraq lobbed along, occupying the gap in behind them.

Only at the top of the hill did urgency arrive. French Holly, the leviathan of the contest, had to go on here to make crushing use of his frame. He tried to squeeze the power out of his diminutive rival: it was the shotputter against the athlete, and it was the fast horse which won.

Istabraq drew level two from home, his breastgirth bouncing lazily on the chest. Swan then fiddled with the reins and his partner shot forward. The victory had been considered inevitable. Now it was. "When he did that I knew there was no horse alive capable of catching me," Swan said.

O'Brien was watching developments behind the weighing room, in the sort of flouncy tent that should house a harem. As soon as Istabraq cleared the last he was out and running to meet his warriors. As the trainer speeded up, so too did his other runner. Theatreworld forged through into second place, just as he has done for the last three Champions. A broken French Holly hung on for third.

JP McManus, the celebrated punter, had not backed his horse, but he nevertheless feels more enriched by this particular piece of equine property than any that has transported his cash to great monetary success. "Istabraq is so much a part of my life, my family's life and my friends' life that just about everything we do revolves around him," the owner said.

Istabraq weighed in 15 kilos heavier than the previous year and the bookmakers' satchels were lightened by an equivalent amount. The seven-year-old is now as short as 5-4 to make it a hat-trick a year hence. If Florida Pearl, the other glorious beast from across the Irish Sea, wins the Gold Cup tomorrow then layers may be reaching for the pearl-handled revolver.

The wick on Swan's career has almost burned out, but he will keep going as long as Istabraq. Swan has been a champion jockey in his homeland for many years, but those times have gone. He trains now. And he dreams about Istabraq. "I'll be around for a third, and maybe a fourth and a fifth I hope," he said. "I think he is entitled to be up there with the best of the Champion Hurdle winners like Night Nurse and Sea Pigeon."

And it may even be that Istabraq can get deadlier than this. "He's a stronger, more mature horse both mentally and physically this season," O'Brien said. "He's better. We didn't have to go to the bottom of the barrel this year."

That, though, will not have been the case for the publicans and bartenders who served the watering holes in Ireland and the Cotswolds last night.