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  Tuesday, 11 February, 2003, 23:42 GMT
A race too far for a legend
Charlie Swan aboard Istabraq
Whip hand: Swan and Istabraq take the plaudits
BBC Sport Online's Frank Keogh looks at the enchanting story of Istabraq, as the triple champion hurdler fails to make history at the Cheltenham Festival

The Irish use the word "serious" a fair bit. But it often bears their own unique intepretation.

Not always for them the grave and solemn meaning, although there will be occasions for that - an early exit at this year's football World Cup, for example.

No, it's more great and super. As in a serious night out or a serious player.

Ireland's top racehorse trainer Aidan O'Brien is fond of the word. His dual English and Irish Derby winner of 2001, Galileo, was a "serious" racehorse.

But you get the feeling only one horse has caused him serious sleeping problems.

Istabraq factfile
Age: Ten
Owner: JP McManus
Trainer: Aidan O'Brien
Jockey: Charlie Swan
Victories: 23 from 29 races
Prize money: More than 1m

He is Istabraq, and he carries the weight of an expectant nation on his shoulders every time he races, never more so than at Cheltenham, spiritual home of the Irish racegoer.

The gelding was bidding to win an unprecedented fourth Smurfit Champion Hurdle on Tuesday afternoon after victories in 1998, 1999 and 2000.

Foot-and-mouth disease robbed him of the chance for glory when the 2001 Cheltenham Festival was abandoned.

And an unconvincing return to the track this season, with two falls in his previous three outings, had seen the critics circling.

They said he was too old, he had missed his chance, the young pretenders such as Valiramix and Landing Light were ready to seize the crown.

This time he could not prove them wrong.

In the end Istabraq's bid to make history ended long before Dean Gallagher and Hors La Loi III had crossed the finishing line to claim victory.

Jockey Charlie Swann knew the 2-1 favourite was struggling to handle the early pace and pulled him up after just two flights.

And so ended Istabraq's run of confounding the sceptics.

Istabraq wins third Champion Hurdle
Three and easy: Swan at Cheltenham 2000

"This horse is just a little bit different from any other horse," said owner JP McManus after a win in the 2001 AIG Europe Champion Hurdle at Leopardstown, which followed reports that all was not right with Istabraq's fitness.

Victory in that Grade One contest meant his beloved horse became the first jumper in Britain and Ireland to win more than 1m in prize money.

But Istabraq's rise to legendary status in Irish and racing folklore is less a financial story, more a tale of triumph after tragedy.

John Durkan spotted the young horse's potential and advised McManus to buy him from top British Flat trainer John Gosden.

Durkan, a talented former amateur rider, seemed poised to join the ranks of top trainers.

But he was tragically struck down by leukaemia and died before the horse achieved greatness.

Durkan's name lives on in a memorial steeplechase at Punchestown, and McManus is never slow to acknowledge his debt to the man who sought out his star.

The horse has become a national institution, following in the footsteps of jumping's other household favourites like Arkle, Red Rum and Desert Orchid.

Istabraq's Cheltenham track record
1997: Won Sun Allliance Novices' Hurdle
1998: Won Champion Hurdle

1999: Won Champion Hurdle

2000: Won Champion Hurdle

2001: Did not take place
2002: Pulled up after two fences

On the eve of the 2000 Champion Hurdle, word spread round Cheltenham and Ireland that Istabraq had broken a blood vessel.

The following day, he romped home.

His career has spawned support like few other racehorses.

When he runs, those famous McManus colours - the green and gold of his local South Liberties Hurling Club in Limerick - can be seen scattered liberally around the crowd.

In the past, coachloads of fans from the club have descended on tracks to cheer on Istabraq.

Supporters have worn replica jockey's silks and sashes bearing the horse's name.

There has even been a song written about him.

It is this deep affection that caused the Cheltenham punters to back their favourite once again, even though common sense maybe told them not to.

But this time Istabraq failed to prove them right - and the chance to stage one serious party was lost.

Cheltenham stages its big jump race meeting from 12-14 March

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21 Jan 01 | N Ireland
Links to more Cheltenham Festival stories are at the foot of the page.

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