This week’s Champion Hurdle is a wide open affair after the New Year withdrawals through injury of the last two winners, Faugheen (2015) and Annie Power (2016). One trainer recently said,“You could run the Champion Hurdle ten times and get six different winners.” The story was very different at the end of the last century when a horse bred to win the Derby towered above his rivals.
The horse was Istabraq (1992), sired by the premier stallion of his age, Saddler’s Wells, out of Betty’s Secret, a dam of the American Triple Crown winner Secretariat. Istabraq was also a three parts brother to the 1984 Derby winner Secreto. The colt was supposed to experience the hustle and bustle of Tattenham Corner not the Cheltenham hill and the Irish invasion at the Festival.
Backward as two year old, he waited until early November 1994 for his first race, where he came 8th of 19 at Doncaster. Owned by Sheikh Hamadan Al Maktoum and trained by John Gosden at Stanley House Stables the bay won only 2 of 11 races, at Salisbury and Ayr. His regular jockey Willie Carson remarked after his win at Salisbury in August 1995 that he couldn’t quicken. Furthermore, after one run as a 4 year old and with no prospect of group success Sheikh Hamdan Al Maktoum put the horse up for sale at 1996 Newmarket July Sales.
At this point John Durkan, a young Irishman, who was then assistant trainer to Gosden changed the course of National Hunt history. Durkan had just decided that he would set up his own Newmarket training establishment in the autumn. He was convinced Gosden’s front running galloper would make a good hurdler who he thought would win a novice hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival.
One owner who said he would give Durkan a horse to train was Irish gambler, JP McManus. Durkan’s enthusiasm for Istabraq persuaded McManus to pay 38,000 guineas for him.
Tragically within 3 months the Durkan had been diagnosed with leukaemia and all his plans to start training were halted. As McManus already had horses with Aiden O’Brien it was agreed to move the horse to his Ballydoyle stables while Durkan was having treatment.
Charlie Swan was stable jockey to Aiden O’Brien, the twenty five year old trainer, who was then concentrating more on the flat following his move to Ballydoyle in October 1994.
Charlie Swan, the nine Irish Champion Jockey answers some of our questions:
When did you first sit on Istabraq and how did he feel?
When Aiden first started training he brought him to the Curragh (seventy miles from Ballydoyle) in October 1996 schooling over hurdles. He had a little bit of jumping over poles at Timmy Hyde’s place at Camas Park. He was a real natural from Day 1, he loved it. He never went to run out. He just enjoyed it. He instantly had a great technique.
Although Istabraq lost on his hurdling debut, when 2nd at Punchestown in November he proceeded to win his next three races before his first journey across Irish Sea
What do you remember about his win in the Sun Alliance Novices (now the Neptune) in 1997?
He was a little bit uptight and sweaty. I was meant to ride him handier, but I decided to just drop him in. Aiden was very good like that; he would leave it up to me. I probably arrived a bit sooner than I should have and he took a bang at the second last which could have knocked a lot of horses off.
Nevertheless, by the time the duo reached the last flight they had regained the lead and in a driving finish held off Mighty Moss by a length.
At the time was the race distance of 2m 5f his ideal trip?
It’s funny when he started out we thought he would want 2 and half miles or 3 miles but Aiden seemed he inject a lot of speed into him.
Aiden introduced interval training with shorter sharper work. The training method suited him. He definitely got speedier and usually horses don’t.
What are your reflections of the three Champion Hurdle victories?
John Durkan had passed away in late January 1998 so it was a very emotional occasion for everyone. I remember about a month before the race, I asked Aiden what he thought about the Champion Hurdle and he had said to me that he won’t win, he will destroy them!
On St Patrick’s Day Charlie, in the owner’s famous emerald green and gold colours,and Istabraq decimated the 18 runner field. Ridden prominently throughout, he took the lead at the third last and turned the race into a procession. Theatreworld also trained by O’Brien trailed home in 2nd, 12 lengths adrift. It was the biggest winning distance in the race since Insurance beat only 2 rivals in 1932.
I suppose this was his best performance but then he did break the track record in 2000.
Istabraq’s main rival in 1999 was French Holly, who had won the Sun Alliance Novices Hurdle and Christmas Hurdle in 1998. However, Istabraq had easily beaten him in the Irish Champion at Leopardstown in late January.
He was very good in the 2nd win, but the ground was the worst of the three wins. It was tacky, gluey ground. The ground stopped me winning by more than the 3 and half length margin. He was a bit vulnerable if the ground was very soft.
Theatrewold ran on to come 2nd for the third year in succession while French Holly was a further 2 ½ lengths back in 3rd. Istabraq had become the first Irish horse to defend his crown since Monksfield in 1979.
Istabraq continued to dominate the hurdling scene winning six of his next seven races. These included the Martell Hurdle at Aintree, where he again beat French Holly, and the Punchestown Champion Hurdle. His one defeat came at the hands of Limestone Lad in Hatton’s Grace Hurdle at Fairyhouse over 2m 4 furlongs.
It was terrible ground that day. I probably didn’t give him the best of rides either (Charlie joked) He nearly fell in that race when he landed before a hurdle and jumped again.
However, this defeat was overturned when Istabraq completed a hat trick of Irish Champion Hurdles in January. All was now set for him to join the other three time Cheltenham Champion Hurdle winners.
That was until the afternoon before the race, when his travelling head lad, Pat Keating spotted a trickle of blood coming from his nose. The dream could have been over, but at 11.30am on Champion Hurdle day Charlie Swan took a call from trainer Aiden O’Brien to say the decision had been taken to run
I rode him completely different; the ground was a bit quicker. I remember going to the start, Make a Stand (1997 winner) was in the race and he went down to the start very free and I knew they were going to go a crazy gallop so I just dropped him in.
I did this because of the fright the night before when they found blood. JP said to me, go out and ride your normal race, if it happens, it happens. If he is not travelling well don’t be afraid to pull him up. It meant I could ride him with a lot of confidence. He put me at ease. I wasn’t under as much pressure as it probably looked, going for the third Champion Hurdle.
JP was very good to ride for. He was a great owner. He would prefer a horse not to be getting too hard a race. If you got beat coming too late that was that. JP always said you very rarely lose a race, those big races, coming too late, if anything you lose them going too soon.
I remember pulling up; the first thing Aiden said to me was JP had got to you. Aiden wanted me to ride a bit handier on the outside and I dropped him on the inner. I don’t think I went round one horse.
An outbreak of Foot and Mouth disease in Britain caused the 2001 Cheltenham Festival to be cancelled.
Do you think he would have won in 2001?
I do. He was in great form at the time. He had beaten everything around. There was no other stand out horse at the time.
Istabraq returned to Cheltenham in March 2002 to try for the elusive 4th victory. Although he had suffered a couple of falls since his 3rd victory Swan said they hadn’t affected his confidence.
The reason he fell was that they were both of on heavy ground. He could be in two minds when jumping on that type of surface. He liked to stand out when he jumped.
When did you realise the dream was over in 2002?
When I jumped the first he wasn’t moving that bad, but his action went when I jumped the second flight. So I pulled him up. It was an amazing feeling, it was different, to receive the applause after only jumping two hurdles.
What suited him so much at Cheltenham?
There was a true gallop in those races. Sometimes at home he had to make the running. He loved a true run gallop. I don’t think it mattered where the course was.
Why did he not come over to the UK apart from the Festival?
There were enough races over here (in Ireland) for his programme. He ran at Aintree twice apart from Cheltenham.
What was his character like?
He was also a fresh horse, a happy horse. He really enjoyed life. He was always well in himself. You just had to mind him in the morning, he could buck you off.
Was he the best horse you have ever ridden?
Yes, he was the best I rode. He had everything, he had speed, he stayed, he jumped, he was an easy ride, very straightforward.
What are your thoughts on the training of Aiden O’Brien?
Aiden was brilliant at training him. He knew him inside out. Aiden would always have him peaking at Cheltenham. Early on the season he wouldn’t be as wound up as at Cheltenham.
Istabraq retired after the 2002 Champion Hurdle. His final record was a remarkable 23 wins from 29 starts with 3 second places.
Only Night Nurse (182) stands above him (180) in the Timeform ratings.
Through the profound judgement of John Durkan, the genius of Aiden O’Brien, the understanding of JP McManus and the riding skills of Charlie Swan, the legend of Istabraq flourished. But for foot and mouth, it should and would have been four!
Now you have finished training what are doing these days?
I buy National Hunt foals and sell them as 3 year olds. I do a bit for JP; I help buy his French three year olds.
One of them is Defi de Seuil, the current favourite for the Triumph Hurdle. I bought after winning a bumper in France. Fingers crossed.
And how is Istabraq?
He’s down at JP’s place at Martinstown. I see him a couple times every year. He goes on the walker every morning and then goes out in the field for 5 or 6 hours before going back to his stable each night.
Thank you Charlie and we hope to welcome you at the Heritage Centre later in the year.