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Blast From The Past: Champion Hurdle

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We take a look back at the 1998 Champion Hurdle, the first of three renewals won by the top-class Istabraq...

‘‘Roofer required. Apply Cheltenham racecourse.’ The pithy message carried in Ladbrokes’ press advertising the day after the Champion Hurdle summed up a splendid St Patrick’s Day for the Irish at the Festival meeting.’

So began the essay on the 1998 Champion Hurdle winner Istabraq in Chasers & Hurdlers that season after the J. P. McManus-owned hurdler had become the first Irish-trained winner of the Champion Hurdle since Dawn Run 14 years earlier. Since being beaten a head on his hurdling debut, Istabraq had won all nine of his races prior to the Champion Hurdle, notably when a well-backed winner of the Royal SunAlliance Novices’ Hurdle at the previous year’s Festival. However, Istabraq had been an unconvincing winner of his final start before the Champion Hurdle in the Irish equivalent at Leopardstown, the AIG Europe Champion Hurdle, but his trainer Aidan O’Brien explained afterwards that he was being brought to peak fitness specially for the Festival and that he expected a much sharper Istabraq to ‘destroy them’ at Cheltenham.

Chasers & Hurdlers takes up the story of the race:

‘‘Destroy them’ Istabraq duly did. In a Champion Hurdle field distinguished more by quantity than quality – there hadn’t been a bigger field since Morley Street’s year [1991] – Istabraq moved to the front three out before producing a telling burst of acceleration rounding the home turn. The Champion Hurdle became a procession in the home straight, Istabraq drawing twelve lengths clear under hands and heels to deafening cheers from the stands. Istabraq was coasting as the line was reached and is probably a bit better than we are able to rate him on the bare result. His stable-companion Theatreworld…came from well back to fill the runner’s-up spot for the second year in succession. The Kingwell Hurdle winner and previous year’s Champion Hurdle fourth I’m Supposin, always prominent, came first of the home-trained contenders, beaten a length by Theatreworld.’

No horse had ever won the Champion Hurdle by a wider margin (nor has any since), though Insurance had won by the same margin in the ‘thirties when the race was nowhere near so important. But whilst awarding him its Champion Jumper title for the 1997/98 season, Timeform wasn’t getting carried away with Istabraq just yet – ‘Istabraq may well go on to prove himself one of the great champions – he must have excellent prospects of successfully defending his title in the next season – but he cannot yet be rated one, not the way we read the form-book.’ 

It was only a matter of time, though, before Istabraq proved himself just that, not only successfully defending his title in 1999 but going on to become the fifth, and most recent, triple winner of the Champion Hurdle when winning it again in 2000. The cancellation of the 2001 Cheltenham Festival due to the foot and mouth outbreak robbed Istabraq of the chance to win an historic fourth consecutive Champion Hurdle, and when he did get another crack at the race as a ten-year-old in 2002, he was pulled up lame after jumping just two flights.

Rated 180 at his best – one of the best hurdlers in Timeform’s experience – Istabraq was retired as the winner of 23 of his 26 completed starts and became the first British or Irish jumper to win over a million pounds in prize-money.

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TAUNTON 16:15

Tuesday 19 February
10. CAPITAINE (FR) 158
Harry Cobden silk Harry Cobden
Paul Nicholls hot trainer
7. FLYING TIGER (IRE) 156
Chester Williams silk Chester Williams
Nick Williams
13. SMAOINEAMH ALAINN (IRE) 154
Rex Dingle silk Rex Dingle
Robert Walford
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1st Phil Dennis silk 0 5. DUKE COSIMO 5/16
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1st Richard Johnson silk 7. LOSSIEMOUTH 9/43.25
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2nd Mr Charlie Marshall silk 6 8. CONKIES LAD (IRE) 33/134
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All 8 ran.
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