Festival Fever | Timeform Cheltenham Greats: Istabraq

Brilliant three-time Champion Hurdle winner: Istabraq

Every Thursday we'll be looking back on the career of a Cheltenham Festival legend and Timeform kick off the series by looking at the mighty Istabraq.

ISTABRAQ – (Highest Timeform rating 180)

Istabraq Profile

Only Night Nurse has achieved a higher Timeform rating over hurdles than Istabraq, who won 23 of his 29 starts over jumps, including four times at the Cheltenham Festival. Those Cheltenham Festival victories included three in the Champion Hurdle, which matched the record number of wins in the race, and Istabraq would have been a strong favourite to grab a historic fourth had the foot-and-mouth-disease outbreak not resulted in the meeting being cancelled in 2001. Istabraq did eventually get a shot at winning a fourth Champion Hurdle in 2002 but he was pulled up in front of the stands after two flights having suffered a tendon injury. Istabraq, who was trained by Aidan O’Brien and ridden by Charlie Swan during his jumps career, has spent his retirement at owner JP McManus’s Martinstown Stud.

Flat Career

Istabraq started on the Flat and raced 11 times in that sphere for John Gosden in the colours of Sheikh Hamdan Al Maktoum, winning twice – a Salisbury maiden at the fifth time of asking along with a handicap at Ayr. Istabraq was sold for 38,000 guineas in 1996 and was due to be trained over jumps by Gosden’s former assistant John Durkan, who knew the horse well and was confident he would take well to hurdling, describing him as “no soft Flat horse”. However, Istabraq was transferred to Aidan O’Brien after Durkan became ill. Tragically, Durkan died of leukaemia two years later at the age of 31.

1996-97 Season

Istabraq suffered a narrow defeat to the more experienced Noble Thyne at Punchestown on his hurdles debut in November, but it was certainly a performance full of promise, with the Timeform reporter remarking that Istabraq “was going to take a great deal of beating in novice company next time”. Istabraq was fast-tracked straight to Grade 1 company in the Royal Bond at Fairyhouse on his next start and he easily turned the tables on a below-par Noble Thyne, coasting four and a half lengths clear. Two easy victories at Leopardstown followed, securing Istabraq’s status as an Irish banker for the Royal SunAlliance Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival, for which he was sent off the 6/5 favourite. Istabraq, who had been sweating and on edge in the preliminaries, had to work hard, but Swan always appeared confident and he managed to see off Mighty Moss by a length with Daraydan a close-up third. Istabraq signed off for the season at Punchestown with an eased-down nine-length success over Soldat, though he was value for much more, such was his superiority.

Major races won:

  • Royal Bond Novice Hurdle, Fairyhouse
  • Deloitte and Touche Novice Hurdle, Leopardstown
  • Royal SunAlliance Novices’ Hurdle, Cheltenham
  • Champion Novice Hurdle, Punchestown

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1997-98 Season

Istabraq proved that he was going to be a candidate for leading honours with an easy win over Cockney Lad in the John James McManus Memorial Hurdle at Tipperary in mid-October, and he had that rival in behind again when landing the Grade 1 Hatton’s Grace Hurdle at Fairyhouse the following month. Istabraq faced little more than a schooling session in the December Festival Hurdle at Leopardstown, which he won at 1/6, but was made to work harder next time in the A.I.G. Europe Champion Hurdle at the same track, failing to jump with his usual fluency and needing to be shaken up to see off the novice His Song. That performance raised some doubts about his suitability for the Champion Hurdle but Istabraq silenced the doubters in style at Cheltenham, producing a top-class effort, impressing with how he breezed through the contest before pinging the last and bounding away up the hill to score by 12 lengths. His winning streak came to a halt at ten in the Aintree Hurdle, but he ran well in defeat, only edged out by Pridwell in a thrilling contest in attritional conditions.

Major races won:

  • Hatton’s Grace Hurdle, Fairyhouse
  • December Festival Hurdle, Leopardstown
  • A.I.G Europe Champion Hurdle, Leopardstown
  • Champion Hurdle, Cheltenham

1998-99 Season

Istabraq was completely dominant during this campaign, sweeping aside his rivals on all seven starts. He had little more than an exercise gallop in the John James McManus Memorial Hurdle on his return and it was a similar story in the Hatton’s Grace Hurdle and December Festival Hurdle. He hadn’t been a convincing winner of the A.I.G. Europe Champion Hurdle the previous season, but was much more impressive this time, effortlessly brushing aside French Holly without having to come off the bridle, prompting the Timeform reporter to comment: “He is as near a certainty for the Champion Hurdle at Cheltenham as it is possible to be at this stage.” Istabraq wasn’t at his sparkling best in the Champion Hurdle after again sweating up beforehand, but he still proved far too good for his rivals, quickening decisively in the straight and going six lengths clear at the last. Stablemate Theatreworld stayed on to get within three and a half lengths of Istabraq, while French Holly was a further two and a half lengths back in third, but matters were under control from a long way out. He brushed aside French Holly once more in the Aintree Hurdle, having much more in hand than the one-length winning margin would suggest, and put the seal on a perfect campaign by beating Decoupage in the Shell Champion Hurdle at Punchestown.

Major races won:

  • Hatton’s Grace Hurdle, Fairyhouse
  • December Festival Hurdle, Leopardstown
  • A.I.G Europe Champion Hurdle, Leopardstown
  • Champion Hurdle, Cheltenham
  • Aintree Hurdle, Aintree
  • Punchestown Champion Hurdle, Punchestown

1999-00 Season

Istabraq’s four rivals could not get him off the bridle on his return in the John James McManus Memorial Hurdle and he sprinted away from Limestone Lad after the last to score by seven lengths with plenty in hand. It was a different story over half a mile further in the Hatton’s Grace at Fairyhouse next time, however, as Limestone Lad turned the tables with a powerful display from the front, keeping up a strong gallop in stamina-sapping conditions.

Istabraq was by no means disgraced, however, and O’Brien seemed unconcerned, saying: “I always knew he would be beaten again. We just keep him ticking over at this time of the year. There is no need to panic.” Istabraq soon bounced back to winning ways, completing hat-tricks in the December Festival Hurdle and A.I.G. Europe Champion Hurdle, setting him up for a tilt at a third Champion Hurdle at Cheltenham. Istabraq beat Hors La Loi by four lengths at Cheltenham, becoming just the fifth horse to win the race three times, and the first since See You Then. That was Istabraq’s final run of the campaign, but hopes were high he would go on to make history and win the race for a fourth time in 2001.

Major races won:

  • December Festival Hurdle, Leopardstown
  • A.I.G Europe Champion Hurdle, Leopardstown
  • Smurfit Champion Hurdle, Cheltenham

2000-01 Season

Istabraq made his belated return in the December Festival Hurdle at Leopardstown, but he looked booked for second or third at best behind Moscow Flyer when he took a crashing fall at the last. However, he showed no ill-effects and gained a measure of compensation in A.I.G. Europe Champion Hurdle, which he won for the fourth straight year, putting in a spring-heeled jump at the last on his way to an easy four-and-a-half-length success. That looked sure to put him spot-on for the Champion Hurdle but his bid for history was foiled by the outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease. That meant Istabraq’s third and final outing of the season came in the Shell Champion Hurdle, which was staged at Leopardstown on this occasion. However, another jumping lapse proved costly as he took a heavy fall at the last when travelling much better than old adversary Moscow Flyer.

Major races won:

  • A.I.G Europe Champion Hurdle, Leopardstown

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2001-02 Season

Istabraq again didn’t make his reappearance until the December Festival Hurdle at Leopardstown, and while he won this time he failed to impress, needing to be shaken up vigorously after the last to get the better of Bust Out, producing the sort of performance that raised questions about whether time was finally starting to catch up with him. Connections decided to head straight to the Champion Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival, but his bid for a history-making fourth victory in the race ended in anti-climactic fashion as he was pulled up after just two flights having suffered a tendon injury. However, it did at least give the packed stands a chance to salute a champion who had operated on completely a different level to his rivals. Timeform’s reporter summed him up as “a giant in an age of pygmies who because of the inferiority of his opponents never got the chance to show exactly how good he was”.

Major races won:

  • December Festival Hurdle, Leopardstown

Istabraq Pedigree Details

  • Sire: Sadler’s Wells
  • Dam: Betty’s Secret
  • Dam’s Sire: Secretariat
  • Breeder: Shadwell Estate
  • Foaled: 23 May 1992

Istabraq Race Record & Factfile

  • Hurdle Races: 29
  • Wins: 23
  • Prize Money: £1,035,440
  • Owner: JP McManus
  • Trainer: Aidan O’Brien

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