Jumping’s equine stars earn more long-lasting love from fans than the heroes and heroines of the Flat but there are some who have found that affection much harder to come by.
On March 12 Buveur D’Air will stand on the cusp of The Festival history when he will bid to complete an extraordinary hat-trick of victories in the Unibet Champion Hurdle. Yet for some unfathomable reason, winning the race twice does not appear to have secured Nicky Henderson’s champion the kind of status previous enjoyed by previous dual winners Hurricane Fly and Hardy Eustace, never mind the public following behind the likes of Sea Pigeon, Monksfield, Night Nurse, Comedy Of Errors and Bula in the 1970s and early 80s.
As only five other horses have won the race three times since it was first run in 1927, the last to do it being Istabraq at the start of the century, surely a third triumph in the J P McManus colours would make all the difference for the current champ. Maybe Buveur D’Air would finally get the recognition he deserves.
Hatton’s Grace (1949, 1950, 1951), Sir Ken (1952, 1953, 1954), Persian War (1968,1969, 1970) and See You Then (1985, 1986, 1987) were the other triple scorers – and in Henderson, responsible for See You Then, and Istabraq’s owner McManus involved in Buveur D’Air, you have a combination that should know what is required.
Istabraq’s place in the affections of the public brooks no argument.
In the Racing Post’s 100 Favourite Racehorses book, published in 2005, Istabraq was ranked fourth, behind only Arkle, Desert Orchid and Red Rum and in front of Brigadier Gerard, the most popular Flat horse.
Istabraq owed his following to a near-invincible record in which he won 23 out of 26 completed starts over hurdles. One of the greatest hurdlers of all time may even have earned the mantle of ‘the greatest’ had not the foot-and-mouth outbreak, which led to the cancellation of The Festival in 2001, robbed him of a shot at a fourth successive title.
Istabraq was bought off the Flat to help spearhead the training career of John Durkan, a former amateur rider and ex-John Gosden assistant, but before he could launch his venture Durkan was diagnosed with leukaemia. Durkan died in 1998 but not before he had witnessed his protege’s potential star quality begin to flourish under his new trainer Aidan O’Brien.
Istabraq suffered defeat on his first start over hurdles but on his next appearance captured the Grade 1 Royal Bond Novice Hurdle, which was to start a long unbeaten run under his jockey Charlie Swan.
He won twice more to arrive at the 1997 Festival burdened with that fabled title, the so-called ‘Irish banker’.
By living up to expectations in the Royal & SunAlliance Novices’ Hurdle, coming from last place at halfway, surviving a bump from a rival at the second last flight and scrambling home by a length, he won over Irish hearts.
But it was to take another year before he began to earn more universal acclaim.
By the time Istabraq arrived at Cheltenham for the 1998 Champion Hurdle he had won nine consecutive races, but at odds of 3-1 was not perceived as an obvious ‘sure thing’ this time. Nevertheless he won with complete authority, striding to a 12-length winning margin that was the widest recorded for 66 years.
There could be little doubt Festival punters had firmly latched onto him by 1999 when they sent Istabraq off the 4-9 favourite. Although he won by three and a half lengths this time, he was never in danger of defeat.
By 2000 he had suffered of a couple of surprise reverses but those had occurred at two and a half miles. At two miles over hurdles his debut defeat remained the only occasion he had lost at the distance.
But his elevation to greatness hit an eleventh hour snag. On the eve of the race vets were called to examine a trickle of blood from one of Istabraq’s nostrils after he had arrived at the Cheltenham racecourse stables.
It was touch and go whether he would take his chance. Unable to scope the horse so close to the race without sedating him, O’Brien agonised about whether to risk running. He made a late call but Istabraq let no one down, delivering his most impressive Champion Hurdle winning performance in triumphing in a record time.
The stage was set for a tilt at a unique fourth Champion Hurdle crown after he had completed a fourth victory in the Irish Champion Hurdle in January 2001 but The Festival had to be called off.
Swan later reflected:
“I am convinced he would have made it four on the trot as he was in great form at the time.”
Istabraq fans had to wait another 12 months to see him mount a fourth attempt but he came into the 2002 meeting amid rumours he was not the force of old, having raced just once for a narrow win during the season.
And so it proved as he was pulled up in front of the packed stands after only three hurdles with a tendon injury, but earning warmer applause than that which greeted the race winner Hors La Loi III. He was retired to his owner’s Martinstown Stud, an extraordinary career had concluded.
Istabraq ran 29 times over hurdles and in all completed starts finished behind only three horses. Buveur D’Air, his latterday successor in the same colours, has an impressive hurdling record too. He has won 11 out of 12 over hurdles, suffering his only defeat over obstacles in the 2016 SkyBet Supreme Novices’ Hurdle.
What a vintage year that proved to be as the future champion was held by Altior and Min, now stars of the chasing division.
It was meant to preface a career over fences and though Buveur D’Air won two novice chases comfortably enough the following season plans changed mid-campaign.
Nicky Henderson was already contemplating a switch when the 2017 Champion Hurdle was thrown wide open by injuries to previous winners Faugheen and Annie Power which ruled both out of The Festival.
Henderson’s instinct proved correct as Buveur D’Air overcame stablemate My Tent Or Yours to win by four and a half lengths.
Hurdling became his permanent career. He won three more Grade 1 prizes, the Betway Aintree Hurdle, BetVictor Fighting Fifth and 32Red Christmas Hurdles and lined up in March 2018 as 4-6 favourite for the Unibet Champion Hurdle.
Emulating Hardy Eustace, the last dual winner of the race, was no cakewalk but Buveur D’Air dug deep to beat Melon by a head.
He has returned this season to win another Fighting Fifth by dismissing two of the young pretenders to his crown, Samcro [winner of the Ballymore Novices Hurdle] and Summerville Boy [SkyBet Supreme Novices’ Hurdle], at Newcastle.
The foundations are in place for another shot at Unibet Champion Hurdle history on Day One of The Festival in 2019 and if successful surely a deserved place on jump racing’s list of all-time great hurdlers. Two out of three ain’t bad. But three out of three would be better.
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