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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
IT TAKES a proper crack to open up the absurdly serious young face of Aidan O'Brien. In victory or defeat, he always manages to look like a man who's just mislaid his wallet. Standing self-consciously on the victory rostrum yesterday, with J P McManus and Charlie Swan, O'Brien broke into a rare smile to acknowledge a chorus of Irish voices which broke through the mayhem of the winners' enclosure.

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."