Racing: O'Brien hails his conquering hero
Istabraq's second Champion Hurdle win thrusts the equine idol from Ballydoyle into the realm of legend and song. By Andrew Longmore
Wednesday 17 March 1999
Commemoration in song is the ultimate accolade for any Irish champion and, in just under four minutes of blistering action, Istabraq had more than earned his tribute.
"We've had Monksfield, Night Nurse and Dawn Run Danoli and Derrymoyle. But they'd find it hard to beat this one Istabraq from Ballydoyle."
Words by Maurice Curran and Garry Lyons of Dublin, to be sung to a traditional Irish air. Inspiration courtesy of a swag bag full of bookmakers' cash and a few beers on a recent flight back from San Francisco. Istabraq from Ballydoyle. There was never much danger of the words being wasted at Cheltenham yesterday. "Billy Bunter could ride this one," Charlie Swan had told Maurice Curran at Leopardstown recently. They had won a hatful on him last year at 3-1 and piled into the 1-2 on offer yesterday until the bookmakers realised the error of their ways and sent him off at 4-9, the shortest priced favourite for the Champion Hurdle for 45 years. "Cause he won't be passed when he's jumped the last, Istabraq from Ballydoyle.''
But there was more to the tumultuous welcome Istabraq received than could be recorded in rhyming couplets. Dawn Run and Jonjo O'Neill raised the roof when he completed the double of Champion Hurdle and Gold Cup, little Monksfield galloped his way into the fretwork of Cheltenham history and Danoli, though just short of the top class, and his country trainer, Tom Foley, became the unwitting symbol of Ireland's equestrian genius. But Istabraq is different. His pedigree is aristocratic, his owner one of the richest men in Ireland and his trainer plies his trade from a purpose- built equine palace. His claims to democracy stem from the pocket and there can be no broader constituency.
A year ago, Istabraq was running for the health of the Exchequer and those whose fortunes had been made greeted him in the usually raucous fashion. Yesterday, the bid was more noble than another snatch and grab raid on the bookies' satchels. "Ready to join the greats," the morning headline read. As the familiar green and gold colours moved nonchalantly on to the heels of the early leaders, every powerhouse stride propelled Istabraq further into exalted realms and the crowd, mindless of the betting slips in their pockets, responded to the thrilling sight of a champion's crowning with a robust simplicity. Swan raised an index finger to denote what most had known long before and a green scarf was hurled high into the blue Cheltenham sky.
In truth, the real danger came not from the other 12 horses in a field reduced to trotters long before the final burst up the hill, but the weight of the history books and the threat of a ricked neck for Swan, who twice before the final flight flicked a disdainful look at the stragglers behind. There had been brave talk of revenge from French Holly's connections, reduced to nothing more than paper talk once Swan had set sail for home two flights out.
The statistics will tell you that Istabraq is the first successful defending champion since See You Then, who won three in a row in the 1980s, but the more disconcerting truth for prospective British challengers is that the seven-year-old's best might still be to come. In that whispering way of his, O'Brien had been warning us about it for a while. His one worry - and his fresh face does not betray many sleepless nights - was that Istabraq's gathering speed might somehow impede his stamina. It was the slenderest of threads on which to hang any coherent opposition and the bookmakers knew it. The weighing-room had given up long ago.
In the post-race interview, McManus, Swan and O'Brien mumbled sweet nothings into the microphone, though inner emotions must have run high. "I must pay tribute to Aidan and everyone else back at Ballydoyle about how well Istabraq always looks. Whenever I see him, at home or on the gallops, he never has a hair out of place," McManus said in a rare burst of eloquence. They have no real need to sing Istabraq's praises. Others have taken care of that. "For he's our hero from old Ireland, Istabraq from Ballydoyle."
Latest in Sport
Arsenal players boo chief-executive Ivan Gazidis after being told they would not get bonus for FA Cup triumph
Danny Ings: Burnley striker to begin talks with Liverpool, despite Tottenham interest
Leicester City investigate reports of 'orgy video in Thailand in which woman is racially abused'
Theo Walcott contract latest: Arsenal striker predicts future will be 'resolved' but warns 'it will take time'
Betting company 'refuse to pay' after student wins £1,000 from 50p bet on Roger Federer
- 1 Enrique Iglesias injured trying to catch a drone mid concert
- 2 Caitlyn Jenner, formerly Bruce Jenner, reveals new look on Annie Leibovitz shot Vanity Fair cover
- 4 Man on naked bike ride gets ejected after becoming aroused
Migrants in Kos: Photos show real tragedy after Brits abroad complain of 'awkward' holidays
British tourists complain that impoverished boat migrants are making holidays 'awkward' in Kos
Michael Gove determined to scrap the Human Rights Act – even if Scotland retains it
Thousands of teenage girls enduring debilitating illnesses after routine school cancer vaccination
Threat to scrap Human Rights Act could see UK follow Nazi example, warns UN official
Why this year's general election was the most unfair in Britain's history
£26000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A luxury beauty house with a nu...
£8 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This company are currently recruiting new exp...
£25000 - £28000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This award winning Property Man...
£20000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A fantastic opportunity has ari...