Even in these strange times, with days seemingly merging into one, it is hard to believe it is 20 years since the mighty Istabraq landed the last of his four Irish Champion Hurdle victories.
Trained by Aidan O’Brien and famously partnered by Charlie Swan, Istabraq made the Leopardstown feature his own between 1998 and 2001, helping to secure his place as a true icon of the hurdling division.
Across the Irish Sea, Istabraq was equally prolific – taking three successive Champion Hurdles at the Cheltenham Festival from 1998 to 2000, with the cancellation of the meeting in 2001 because of foot and mouth disease almost certainly robbing him of a fourth Cotswolds crown.
The son of Sadler’s Wells was rated 176 at his peak and amassed more than £1million in prize-money, having won 23 of his 29 hurdle starts – 20 of them at graded level.
Istabraq was initially campaigned on the Flat by John Gosden and was intended to begin his jumping career under the guidance of the Newmarket trainer’s assistant, John Durkan.
The horse was then transferred to O’Brien’s yard following the untimely death of Durkan, who had been diagnosed with leukaemia and after whom the John Durkan Memorial Punchestown Chase is named.
Swan first took the mount in 1996, and from then on was the only jockey to ride the JP McManus-owned bay on the racecourse.
“He was fantastic – when you’re riding such a good horse it’s brilliant,” he said.
“He was always rock-solid, and Aidan always had him in tip-top shape.”
Swan was able to develop a bond with Istabraq, honed on the schooling grounds, as the jockey almost exclusively undertook the gelding’s jumping sessions at home.
“It was probably a help,” he said of their long-standing partnership.
“At the same time I was just fortunate that any time I was injured or suspended, it just happened to be that he wasn’t running at the time.
“I never missed a ride on him, which was great. I was the only one who really schooled him – except I think my wife might have ridden him when Timmy Hyde bought him.
“Otherwise I’m the only one that ever schooled him – I was fortunate that way.”
Swan recounted how seamlessly the horse took to hurdling after his Flat career, describing how the duo bounced back from a narrow loss on their first run for O’Brien to take the Royal Bond Novice Hurdle just a fortnight later.
“From the first day we schooled him, he was just a complete natural,” he said.
“The first day he ran I probably should have won on him, but I didn’t – I probably gave him a bit too much to do.
“He won a Grade One two weeks later, so I must have given him an all right ride then!”
The jockey, whose record of six Irish Champion Hurdle wins has been matched only by Ruby Walsh, cites Istabraq’s fluent and economical jumping as his greatest asset.
“His jumping was his big thing,” he said.
“He was quick, very quick.
“He never landed in a heap, he always landed running.
“He never went up and down, he went sort of across, really. He nearly landed with the hind legs down first, which is the sign of a good hurdler.”
The only horse to better Istabraq’s record in the Irish Champion Hurdle thus far has been Willie Mullins’ Hurricane Fly, unbeaten in the Leopardstown contest for five successive years between 2011-2015.
Swan pointed out the difficulties in comparing remarkable horses from different eras, but agrees it was probably beneficial to both sets of connections that the two champions did not coincide.
“With the two generations, it’s always hard to judge them,” he said.
“I’m sure they were glad my horse wasn’t around – and I’m glad he (Hurricane Fly) wasn’t around!”
Istabraq officially turned 29 on New Year’s Day – and since his career ended, he has been enjoying a leisurely retirement at his owner’s Limerick home, Martinstown Stud.
“He’s in great form, he’s at Martinstown – JP’s place,” said Swan.
“He goes on the walker every morning, and then the lads let him out. He goes out in the field for a bit and then he comes back in at night.
“He’s very well looked after.”
Swan is still associated with McManus, sourcing many of the horses that run in his famous green and gold hoops, and thus hopes County Hurdle winner Saint Roi will return to form for his owner in Saturday’s running of the Irish Champion.
“It’s going to be interesting this year,” he said.
“It’s going to be a very good race and it looks wide open again, with Saldier and Honeysuckle.
“Obviously we hope Saint Roi wins, but he was a bit disappointing the last time. Hopefully he can overcome that if he reproduces his run at Cheltenham last year.
“If he came back to that sort of form, he might have a good chance, but he wants a bit of better ground.
“We’ve had a lot of rain here, so I’m sure the ground is going to be quite testing.”