Racing: Istabraq vote is now a landslide

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The Independent Online
SOMEONE ONCE said that when the House of Commons is unanimous, it is almost always wrong. In seven weeks' time, we should discover whether a similar rule holds true on the turf, for after Istabraq's victory in the Irish Champion Hurdle at Leopardstown yesterday, there did not seem to be a single punter, bookie, trainer or jockey anywhere who believed that the defence of his hurdling championship at Cheltenham in March will be anything other than a formality.

One bookmaker even started quoting odds on his winning margin at the Festival, and six lengths or more was the firm favourite. Such was the ease with which Charlie Swan and Istabraq ghosted past French Holly on the run to the last that the jockey allowed himself a friendly snigger at the sight of Adrian Maguire on his inside, toiling hard to go nowhere. His official advantage when the post arrived was merely a length, but in every other respect, the gap between them was immense.

And easy though it was to forget in the lopsided closing stages, the runner-up yesterday was not just any makeweight hurdler, but by most estimates the best horse over timber in Britain.

French Holly was the clear second-favourite for the Champion Hurdle before yesterday's race, and that is where he remains, albeit at a more respectful distance from Istabraq, who is now as short as 1-2 to retain his championship. After that, it is 20-1 bar two even though, as any each-way punter will tell you, something has to finish third.

Even Ferdy Murphy, French Holly's trainer and a man not noted for pessimism, seemed to concede defeat in a race which will not even start for another seven weeks. "It looks like we'll be going for the place money in the Champion now," he said. "It looks like we've been beaten by a very good horse. My lad jumped very well apart from the third last, but the writing was on the wall after that."

It might have been kidology, but then again, it is very hard to kid bookmakers. They now have a one-horse book on the Champion Hurdle, and while the on- course layers at the Festival are usually keen to take on a hot favourite, Istabraq may be one that even they will duck. They will not need reminding that his victory in last year's race was the opening right hook in a flurry of scoring blows from the punters. By the end of the week, many of them were flat on the canvas.

Istabraq may now be too short for most punters' tastes, but his name will be scribbled in thousands of accumulators, particularly in Ireland, from now until the morning of the race. And when Istabraq arrives at Cheltenham, according to Aidan O'Brien, his trainer, he should be an even better horse than he was yesterday.

"The horse seems to be getting quicker as he gets older," O'Brien said, "and he was 15 kilos heavier than he was when winning this race last year. He will improve a lot from this I'm sure, and he could easily find 7lb or more."

Swan, if anything, seemed more confident still. "He's an unreal horse to ride, and he's really turned into a man now," the jockey said.

"Going down the back, I thought that if French Holly kept going we could be in trouble, but after the third last he started to come back a bit and I always had it from then on. I couldn't believe how quickly he responded. Two years ago, we always thought that two miles might be a bit sharp for him, but now I wouldn't mind if the Champion Hurdle was over a mile and a half."

It sounds as if the case is closed, because the prosecution has no evidence to offer. If forced to produce an Exhibit A, though, it might be that the lack of a pacemaker yesterday forced French Holly to make his own running. He needs to sit in behind a fierce pace to produce his best, and should be able to do so at the Festival. Testing ground would probably suit him too, while anything could happen if one of the early leaders comes down at the first flight.

But no-one will think twice about that when the time comes. Istabraq will be the hottest Champion Hurdle favourite for years, and probably become the first to successfully defend his title since See You Then in 1986. If so, it will be his 15th victory in 17 races over hurdles, and an unthinkable amount of money will then be running on to the rest of the Irish challenge at the Festival.

On to horses like Florida Pearl and Danoli, in fact. Both worked after racing at Leopardstown yesterday, on their way to the Hennessy Gold Cup at the track in a fortnight's time, and then the Gold Cup itself.

Florida Pearl in particular has a mountain of emotion and cash invested in his massive frame already, despite his fall at Leopardstown's Christmas meeting.

He jumped the same fence - the third last - well enough yesterday, and Danoli, too, seems to be coming back to his best. The Irish now have heroes to cheer on both the Tuesday and Thursday of the Festival. And as for the Wednesday? It just happens to be St Patrick's Day.

LEOPARDSTOWN

1.40: 1. HIS SONG (J R Barry) 1-2 fav; 2. Padre Mio 12-1; 3. Cockney Lad 9-2. 6 ran. nk, 9. (M Morris). Tote: win pounds 1.30; places pounds 1.10, pounds 2.70. Reverse Forecast: pounds 5.10. CSF: pounds 7.60.

2.45: 1. ISTABRAQ (C F Swan) 8-15 fav; 2. French Holly 9-4; 3. Zafarabad 16-1. 6 ran. 1, 7. (A P O'Brien). Tote: win pounds 1.50; places pounds 1.30, pounds 1.20. Reverse Forecast: pounds 1.70. CSF: pounds 2.01. Non Runner: Shantarini.

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