In the latest of our Cheltenham Icons series counting down to the 2022 Festival, we look back at Istabraq – the horse that began JP McManus' love affair with the Champion Hurdle.
Though he'd write his name into Cheltenham Festival folklore around the turn of the millennium, it's fair to say that Istabraq wasn't quite bred for the challenge of the Cotswolds.
His Cheltenham Festival story was an unlikely one, but one eventually laced with greatness and a gut-wrenching tinge too.
Bred by Sheikh Hamdan Al Maktoum at Derrinstown Stud in Co Kildare, Ireland, the great Istabraq was foaled in May 1992 and it was on the flat turf of the Curragh or Epsom that his dreams would have been initially aimed given his pedigree.
His sire was the great Sadler's Wells and his dam was Betty's Secret – already the dam of Secreto, the winner of the Epsom Derby in 1984.
Istabraq would race as a two-year-old for none other than John Gosden in Britain and while he won a maiden at Salisbury in August 1995 – and bagged the Bogside Cup at Ayr the following month – his form on the level was undistinguished in comparison to his regal bloodline.
He was second on his seasonal bow at Haydock in June '96 in a handicap off a mark of 83, the last time he would race for Gosden.
Later that year, McManus would purchase him and send him to a young Irish trainer by the name of Aidan O'Brien, by now based in the magical yard at Ballydoyle, and from there his career trajectory would ascend dramatically.
In 1996 Gosden's assistant trainer was John Durkan, a former successful amateur rider with designs on becoming a trainer in his own right.
Legendary Irish punter McManus had promised he would send Durkan a horse once he got going at his intended Newmarket base and Durkan pinpointed that Istabraq could have a future over hurdles.
By late 1996, Durkan had fallen ill and was diagnosed with leukaemia. Istabraq, he suggested, would be well served in going to join O'Brien in Ballydoyle while he fought his health battle.
Purchased for 38,000 gns on Durkan's recommendation, the 31-year-old would sadly pass away in early 1998, just weeks before Istabraq landed his first Champion Hurdle at Cheltenham.
When it came to schooling Istabraq over jumps, it was Charlie Swan – well associated with O'Brien and McManus – that was on hand.
He was brave and bold, as well as accurate, over hurdles, as Swan remarked: "He was quite amazing, a real natural" of his initial impression.
O'Brien's patient approach with horses is now legendary and so it was with Istabraq when he went hurdling in November 1996. He told Swan to allow the horse to enjoy himself and, though a mistake at the final flight cost them victory behind Noble Thyne, that first foray was viewed as a positive.
It was to be his only setback that first season. Wins at Fairyhouse and Leopardstown proved enough to convince connections to send him to his first Cheltenham Festival, where he duly won the Royal Sunalliance Novices' Hurdle, known as the Ballymore today, by a length from Mighty Moss over 2m5f. A second Grade 1 novice victory followed at Punchestown in April '97.
A first open Grade 1 arrived via the Hatton's Grace at Fairyhouse in November '97, with Durkan in attendance to watch him, despite the worsening state of his health.
By January 1998, Istabraq was ready to make his mark in the big league, winning the first of his four Irish Champion Hurdles at Leopardstown. Devastatingly, Durkan was laid to rest just 24 hours before that victory, with Swan wearing a black armband over this silks in the race.
Onto the Cotswolds in March, where Istabraq was 3/1 favourite to win the Champion Hurdle. Swan drove to Ballydoyle to work Istabraq over in the week before the Festival and, while his confidence was not sky high, he later revealed O'Brien had uncharacteristically told him the gelding would 'destroy them' in the big race.
So it was. A 12-length ready demolition from stablemate and outsider Theatreworld in second spot crowning a new hurdling king.
At Aintree the following month, he was agonisingly denied over two-and-a-half miles in their big Grade 1 by Pridwell for Martin Pipe under an inspired AP McCoy ride.
The 1998/99 season was one of sheer perfection for Istabraq. He won four races in Ireland, culminating in another Irish Champion Hurdle in January, before returning to the Cotswolds and again leaving Theatreworld to settle for the second spot in the '99 Champion Hurdle (his third bridesmaid finish in as many years).
He would also win the Aintree Hurdle and at the Punchestown Festival in a magnificent season, starting odds-on favourite for all three major spring festival prizes.
The following season was not as majestic, with only five runs and four wins. Limestone Lad denied the jolly in the Hatton's Grace at Fairyhouse but a Christmas success around Leopardstown preceded another Irish Champion win at the Dublin track.
A hat-trick of Champion Hurdles was secured when he beat French challenger Hors La Loi with an impressive turn of foot back at Cheltenham in March 2000 – equalling the feats of Hatton's Grace, Sir Ken, Persian War and See You Then in doing so.
The 2001 Cheltenham Festival was lost to the Foot and Mouth crisis and it was around then that Istabraq – now aged nine – was beginning to lose his consistency.
He fell at the last around Leopardstown at Christmas as a young upstart called Moscow Flyer prevailed. However, the roles were soon reversed as Jessica Harrington's charge hit the deck a month later in the Irish Champion Hurdle – Istabraq's fourth and final win in that race.
With Cheltenham abandoned, the pair would instead meet at Punchestown in the Grade 1 Shell Champion Hurdle that April. Istabraq led going much the best as they turned into the home straight but he fell at the last, only the second time in his career it had happened to him.
He would return in late 2001 to win around Leopardstown one more time in the Grade 2 Tote December Festival Hurdle, getting up bravely in the shadow of the post to thwart Barry Geraghty on Bust Out for the Harrington team to the rapturous applause of his adoring crowd.
From there to Cheltenham in March, where Istabraq started as 2/1 favourite to belatedly win a fourth Champion Hurdle, though O'Brien cautioned pre-race in suggesting it would be 'a miracle' if he could pull it off.
It was not to be. He jumped only two flights before Swan sensed he wasn't enjoying the experience and pulled him up immediately.
Istabraq took a standing ovation from the packed grandstands in Cheltenham that afternoon despite his early departure from the race.
O'Brien and McManus weren't going to put his well-being at risk by racing on any longer and he was duly retired.
This great warrior of the hurdles division had fulfilled dreams that could never have been expected of him. Istabraq ran 29 times over hurdles, winning 23 of them and finishing second in three more. Two falls and the final visit to Cheltenham were the only occasions he wasn't first or second.
His is the modern-day standard to which all Champion Hurdle contenders aspire.
The talent that John Durkan spotted in this flat-bred colt was to prove inspirational. Though the man himself never got to enjoy the fullness of Istabraq's great career, his part in the narrative is forever recalled.