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Tuesday 23 February 1999

Istabraq can win more unfettered admiration from his Fethard friends

The whole world at his hooves
By Eamonn Carr


    It's twelve noon and Istabraq is enjoying some quality-time. A morning workout on the gallops behind him, the horse everyone expects to repeat his Cheltenham Champion Hurdle victory, relaxes in his stall wearing the equine equivalent of a padded smoking jacket. He’s got an aloof, regal air about him which reminds one of a quadruped Charlie Haughey in his pomp. But when questions are asked in the race world, Istabraq’s answer is to show the flashing steel of his hooves as he sails away from the rest. This horse is bound for even greater glory. He’s considered such a certainty, that I've been quoted odds of 1/2 on an Istabraq win. In lay terms that means I have to wager two pounds to win one. High-rollers may avail of an offshore betting offer of 1/1.
    After his magnificent win on St. Patrick’s Day last year, Istabraq was already being quoted as this year’s favourite with odds as low as 11/4. "It’s taken the good out of it for us ordinary punters," says a Tipperary man on the streets of Fethard, a few miles from Istabraq’s training course.
    "We can’t see him been beaten. But sure isn't it all about pride." Locals advise you to drive carefully if you're likely to be travelling around Rosegreen in the early morning mist. That's when a multi-million pound convoy of expensive horses are led past the bronze statue of Nijinsky (rumoured to have cost £80,000), through the electronic security gates of Vincent O’Brien’s Ballydoyle yard and taken across the road to the rolling gallops which resemble a pint-sized Cheltenham course.


    My eyes are not deceiving me. There is something hauntingly familiar about these surroundings. "All horses are individuals," explains Tishy Roberts, the genial West Country gent who builds fences for race courses and trainers both here and in England. "With some you have to play more tricks than others. For many sensitive horses, going to Cheltenham is like an actor appearing in the West End. It’s the biggest occasion of their career. So you try to make them feel relaxed by reproducing the conditions they’ll experience at Cheltenham. If the apron, the knee rail and so on, seem familiar then they’ll perform better."

    Tish Roberts outside his pub


    Istabraq’s trainer is Aidan O’Brien, the man they call the Daniel O’Donnell of racing. The baby-faced 29-year old non-smoking teetotaller is as taciturn as his namesake Vincent (no relation), who was known to his staff as "The Fuhrer."
    Aidan, too, is renowned for his attention to detail. Istabraq is known to work himself into a sweat on big occasions. But last year Aidan surprised punters by keeping his horse out of the parade ring until the last minute.
    "We tried to leave him as long as we could to put the saddle on," he says. "He sweated slightly, but on a big day every horse needs that degree of sweat. He knew he was coming near the time to be asked to show his potential."
    Many observers have remarked on the almost mystical communication O’Brien has with his horse. "He’s very religious," says a fellow trainer. "Even when he’s driving home after a meeting on a Saturday he makes sure to get Mass. He has his chauffeur pull up when he sees a church that has evening mass going on."


    Racing buffs the world over know the finer poignant detail of the Istabraq story. A mythic tale of heartbreak and jubilation, and those twin impostors, tragedy and triumph.
    It was Irish jockey John Durkan who first spotted Istabraq’s potential and advised J.P. McManus to buy the horse from top British trainer John Gosden. John predicted Istabraq would be a Cheltenham Champion Hurdle winner one day. The talented former amateur rider seemed poised to join the ranks of Ireland’s legendary trainers. Instead he was diagnosed as having leukaemia.
    But John’s intuition was right. Under Aidan O’Brien’s management, Istabraq proved he was a champion, sweeping all before him in ‘96/’97. Two months after John lost his battle with leukaemia, Istabraq romped home ahead of the Champion Hurdle field, just as John had predicted. The Irish crowd went wild. There hadn't been a winning margin as impressive as this since 1932. But there were tears amid the laughter.


    As a tidal wave of emotion broke over the winner s enclosure, J. P. McManus paid tribute to the man who had first spotted the horse’s class. "This victory is for John Durkan," he vowed. "Wherever Istabraq is, John Durkan is."
    Today Istabraq is in good company. Past the rows of shimmering young birch trees, behind the security grills and surveillance cameras of the fortress that is Ballydoyle, he shares the yard with more of O’Brien’s charges.


    Bianconi, Orpen, Stravinsky and Black Rose Desert occupy nearby stalls. Each one set to win combined prizes that would humble the National Lottery. Soon they’ll train on the new all-weather gallops, just up from a proposed manmade lake, that locals believe cost £34m to construct.
    With just twenty-one days to go to the Cheltenham Festival, the buzz is already building among the racing-mad folk of Fethard. "It starts after Christmas," says Willie O’Donnell.
    There are plenty of major trainers in these parts. Mouse Morris, whose horse His Song is heavily fancied this year, is based two miles away. Then there’s O’Grady’s and Joe Murphy’s. Willie O’Donnell gets his information from the lads out on the
    gallops. He’s tipping Give It Holly this year.
    John Tobin, the head man at Joseph G. Murphy’s yard, takes a break from putting his horses through their paces for visiting Americans, and says, "If the ground comes good we should have six winners this year. Irish horses prefer mucky ground. If it dries up, we could still have three winners." Fethard is gearing itself for a fun festival.

    Tipped for the Top: John Tobin enjoys the
    Festival buzz in Tish Roberts bar in Fethard


    In Tishy’s Bar, where the distinctive pub sign is a reproduction of a Robert’s family sketch done years ago by famous Fleet Street cartoonist Charlie Webster, manager Fiona Ryan-Lawrence predicts "a unique buzz during the festival."

    Fiona Ryan Lawrence and Willie O'Donnell enjoy a jar


    Eamon Drea, "the barman with the inside view" as he’s described, will be providing a specialised betting service for non-punters. And Fiona will be serving champagne and strawberries throughout the festival. "It’s just to add an extra bit of craic to the proceedings," she laughs.
    Owner Tishy Roberts knows what it’s like to ride at Cheltenham. His first race there was in 1961. "I wasn’t worried about the big names from England," he recalls. "It was the unknown Irish boys that caused me concern." "But there are always surprises. One thing is certain, Cheltenham wouldn’t have grown to the pinnacle it has if it wasn’t for the charisma the Irish bring to the event."

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