Sprinter Sacre and Solwhit both head off to Punchestown aiming to complete a rare feat – a seasonal hat trick of Festival victories. Istabraq was the last horse to win races at the Cheltenham, Aintree and Punchestown Festivals, and that was back in 1999.
Then, he won the Champion Hurdle, Aintree Hurdle and Punchestown Champion Hurdle, achieving his highest ever rating of 181 in the third of those races. That in itself shows what a challenge it is, and Charlie Swan, who rode Istabraq in those races, told the Racing Post that although Istabraq was a horse with bags of ability, that wasn’t enough to ensure a triple success.
When he won the Champion Hurdle in 1999, he came to Cheltenham on the back of one defeat in 12 races, stretching back over two years. That loss was a head defeat to Pridwell in the 1998 Aintree Hurdle. His eight races beginning with those three yielded seven wins, including two Cheltenham Champion Hurdles and a second place. That’s the talent Istabraq had, yet Swan says he needed more than that.
He said, “To do what he did that year, with them coming up so quickly (just six weeks between Cheltenham and Punchestown) he had to be a very good horse. He also had to have a very good trainer. He was as good in the Punchestown race as he had been at Cheltenham and I think the reason he had been beaten at Aintree was more to do with the ground and him running keenly.”
So how likely is it that Solwhit or Sprinter Sacre can emulate Istabraq and do what Rooster Booster, Moscow Flyer and Fota Island all tried, but just failed to manage? And is it possible that two horses will do so in the same year?
One trainer who is perhaps better placed than most to judge that is Jessica Harrington, who had Moscow Flyer in her care. She explained what she thought had prevented her horse gaining the treble, saying, “The first year Moscow Flyer went to the three big meetings was 2004. When he departed at the top of the (Cheltenham) hill, it meant he didn’t have a hard race and because he was ten we had nothing to lose from stepping him up to two and a half miles. He won easily at Aintree before going on to Punchestown.”
They tried again the following season. “Then, he won the Queen Mother as an 11-year-old, followed up at Aintree and was beaten only a whisker by Rathgar Beau at Punchestown. But going into that race, he hadn’t had too hard a time of it at Cheltenham or Aintree, so he was fit and well.”
Now Sprinter Sacre clearly passes Swan’s test of having a very good trainer. Nicky Henderson had been perennial runner up to Paul Nicholls, and this season is champion trainer. And he also meets the Harrington test of not having had too many hard races. She added, “The thing with Sprinter Sacre is that, like Moscow, he hasn’t really had hard races at either Cheltenham or Aintree, so you’d imagine he’ll be fresh enough going to Punchestown. He is just the real deal, isn’t he?”
That’s a pretty clear vote of confidence behind his chances, but what of Solwhit?
In Charles Byrnes he has a very capable trainer. You couldn’t have predicted his two wins at Cheltenham and Aintree; they were over a distance of three miles and were the first two runs he had beyond two and a half miles. What’s more, he’d only won once over that distance. He may still have more to show over three. But the biggest challenge Solwhit will face is a horse he hasn’t come up against before, and which ran in the Mares' Hurdle at Cheltenham, but skipped Aintree. Step forward Quevega. If she is fit and lines up, she might well be the fly in Solwhit’s ointment.