Racing: Swan revels in his ride of rare grace

Sue Montgomery says a classy duo can bring the Fairyhouse down
THIS AFTERNOON at Fairyhouse the faithful should be treated to one of the best sequences in racing. A hard-held Istabraq ranges up alongside a vainly striving rival; Charlie Swan, perched immobile over his withers, glances casually over and passes the time of day with the hapless one's jockey; Istabraq, half-an-inch of handbrake rein released, cruises clear, a Ferrari among Ladas.

When Istabraq, winner of the past two Champion Hurdles and beaten only twice in 20 runs over obstacles, made his seasonal debut at Tipperary last month there were signs and banners heralding the fact tacked to posts and trees all over the surrounding countryside. A good horse - and this one is at present the sport's towering talent - has that effect in Ireland and it will be sardines only at the newly refurbished Fairyhouse course today.

Swan's remarks in running - Paul Carberry on Limestone Lad was on the receiving end last time - usually comprise a pointed enquiry about ability to go faster, but they are made not with any sense of malice or pride, just a delight in his own mount's overwhelming talent. "It's just banter," he said, "and no one takes it any other way. They'd say the same to me if the positions were reversed."

Istabraq will attempt to take his latest unbeaten sequence to nine today. The only blip in his record since he was beaten a head on his hurdling debut came in April 1998, when Pridwell, under an inspired ride from Tony McCoy, prevailed by another head at Aintree. The record unbeaten sequence for a hurdler is 13, set by the dual champion Bula in the early Seventies.

On all known form there is nothing to prevent Istabraq matching the feat, but the gelding's trainer, Aidan O'Brien, knows as well as any that, with horses, nothing can be taken for granted. "One thing is certain," he said, "he will be beaten again some day. Please God, it will be later rather than sooner."

It is entirely appropriate that the race that Istabraq contests today is the Hatton's Grace Hurdle. The horse it commemorates was the first to win three Champion Hurdles in a row (1949-51); like Istabraq, Hatton's Grace was a smallish ex-Flat racer trained by a genius named O'Brien - his exploits launched the career of Vincent of that ilk - at Ballydoyle.

Sir Ken (1952-54), Persian War (1968-70) and See You Then (1985-87) followed in the hoofprints of Hatton's Grace. Swan can see no reason why Istabraq should not become the fifth triple winner in March. "At Tipperary he was amazing," he said, "he went straight into overdrive when I asked him to join Limestone Lad before the last. He is equally as good as he was last season, and maybe even stronger. He's not very big, but he's all muscle, a rubber ball of a horse.

"He almost has to be a freak. Most horses have favoured conditions but this one can go over any trip on any sort of ground on any course, and you can ride him anywhere in a race. To find a horse with that sort of range is very rare indeed."

Istabraq is also blessed with a temperament that sets him apart from the herd. "He's a very nice-natured horse," said Swan. "He is usually a bit fresh, and can give a buck and a kick when you first get on him. And I can remember when I went to ride him a few days before the Champion Hurdle this year he was so pleased with himself that he tried to buck me off, which is highly unusual for a horse in hard training. But there's no dirt in him. He's just a very happy horse."

Professional is another word Swan, 31, uses to describe the seven-year- old, but then it takes one to know one. The nine-times Irish jumps champion, who forfeited his title when he decided at the start of last season to stop riding in chases to give more time to his training operation, suffered one of the worst injuries of his career in a fall on the flat from one of his own charges in early August.

He broke his left wrist and his right ulna when his mount slipped and came down between obstacles, but was back in action in just 10 weeks. Most jockeys would give their right arm to ride Istabraq; Swan has had to repair both. This afternoon's cheers will be for an irresistible combination.