Charlie Swan and ISTABRAQ retire from the 2002 Championship at Cheltenham amid the applause and tears of thousands.
…..When the young jockey pulled up the 10 year-old bay gelding after the third hurdle of the 2002 Cheltenham Championship, the thousands who had come to see him race rose to their feet. But Charlie Swan knew that he was doing the right thing. The year before, the game old warrior had actually fallen and in the minds of his jockey, trainer and owner, it was unthinkable to put him at risk. As they walked by the stands that day, the spectators — who were still on their feet — began to applaud. Swan saw grown men crying. Women clutched tissues to wet cheeks. Young people stretched out their hands to touch a horse who was the bravest they had ever seen.
But no amount of emotion could change the realization that a thoroughbred who had dominated horse racing for the last 5 years was leaving the turf for the last time.
The career of a legend had ended.
His name was Istabraq (1992), a Sindhi word for “brocade.” In his early years, Istabraq seemed an unlikely candidate to wear the mantle of racing legend, despite his impeccable breeding. His sire was the sire of sires, Sadler’s Wells (1981) and his dam was Betty’s Secret, by Secretariat. Betty’s Secret had already distinguished herself as the dam of Secreto (1981), the winner of the Epsom Derby in 1984. Owned by E.P. Taylor, the Canadian thoroughbred breeder and owner of Northern Dancer, Betty’s Secret was sent to Ireland in 1987 to be bred to some of Northern Dancer’s British sons. Taylor died two years later and the mare, in foal to Sadler’s Wells was purchased by Hamdan Al Maktoum. The foal she was carrying was Istabraq.
Whereas his dam was a loner, known for her aggressive behavior toward other mares, Istabraq had a sweet disposition. His only quirk as a youngster was that he enjoyed showing himself off to other foals — and anyone at the paddock fence who might be watching. “…It was almost as if he knew he was worth a fortune,” reflected Tom Deane, who cared lovingly for Istabraq as a young colt at Derrinstown in County Kildare, Ireland. But Deane adored all of his young charges. Istabraq grew into a nice, correct yearling, but in every other way he seemed pretty average.
“Worth a fortune…” Baby ISTABRAQ (by SADLER’S WELLS) with his dam, BETTY’S SECRET (by SECRETARIAT). The little colt foal was the son of a champion and the grandson of two champions, NORTHERN DANCER being the sire of SADLER’S WELLS.
As a two year-old racing on the flat, Istabraq was backward and lacked a good “turn of foot,” meaning that he needed too much time to pick up speed. Sheikh Hamdan’s advisor, Angus Gold, believed that any thoroughbred with real ability shows promise in its two year-old season. Even though Istabraq seemed to try when he ran and even though trainer John Gosden was prepared to give him the time he needed to develop, in the end it was Gold’s judgement that won out. By 1994 the verdict on Istabraq was that he was unlikely to live up to his wonderful pedigree. His jockey, the great Willie Carson agreed. He described the youngster as a “slow learner” who “…also lacked speed and was not at home on fast ground…I came to the conclusion that the reason he was struggling was because he had no speed. In fact, he was one-paced…”
By his third year, Istabraq had developed foot problems. He had always been rather flat-footed, especially in front and it was difficult to shoe him such that his heels were off the ground. Consequently, he developed a quarter crack and was out of commission for several weeks that year. In his final race on the flat, he refused to quicken despite Carson’s aggressive ride and was beaten by a length. Sheikh Hamdan decided that he had persevered with Istabraq long enough and gave instructions that he was to be sold.
When John Durkan, Gosden’s assistant trainer, heard that Istabraq would be listed in the 1995 Tattersall’s sale he resolved to acquire him. He saw possibilities for Istabraq, but not on the flat — as a hurdler. Having informed Gosden that he would be leaving to go out on his own, Durkan began searching for a possible buyer for Istabraq and found one in J. P. McManus, a wealthy Irishman who had made a fortune as a gambler. Following the sale at Tattersall’s, McManus shipped Istabraq back to Ireland with the understanding that the colt would be trained by Durkan. In his young trainer, Istabraq had found someone who believed in him. “He is no soft flat horse. He is the sort who does not get going until he’s in a battle. He has more guts than class and that’s what you need, ” Durkan told McManus, “He will win next year’s Sun Alliance Hurdle.” Prophetic words.
John Durkan believed in him and that belief changed a mediocre flat horse into an Irish national legend.
In Great Britain it is not unusual for thoroughbreds to be moved from racing on the flat to the world of National Hunt racing when they meet with little success at the former. National Hunt racing originated in Ireland in the 18th century and to this day the Irish remain devoted to a style of racing that they continue to dominate. Each type of National Hunt race has its own features. An average hurdle race, for example, involves a minimum of 8 hurdles over 3.5 feet high and is run over a distance of at least 2 miles. The chase involves horses jumping fences of 4.5 feet minimum and courses that range from 2 – 4.5 miles. The steeplechase is restricted to thoroughbreds that have a hunter certificate; the most famous steeplechase in Britain is the Grand National. Thoroughbreds that hurdle, chase or steeplechase need to have an aptitude for jumping. But since National Hunt racing demands that horses both jump and run over longer distances than is usual on a flat course, a National Hunt thoroughbred needs to be particularly courageous and tough, as well as blessed with endurance. Arguably, National Hunt colts and fillies need to be deeper through the heart than their “softer” flat racing cousins.
The first item on the agenda for Istabraq upon his return from Tattersall’s was an appointment with the vet. It is traditional to geld National Hunt thoroughbreds to ensure their safety and comfort, as well as make them easier to handle. The operation itself is straightforward but can be taxing for an older horse and Istabraq fell into this category. Turned out, he was given time to heal and come back to himself. In the mean time, John Durkan was busily making plans to buy yearlings for new owners and finalize the purchase of his own stable when he fell ill. A short time later, he was diagnosed with leukaemia. Before he left for Sloan Kettering in New York, arrangements were made to send Istabraq to a brilliant young trainer, Aidan O’Brien, with the understanding that when John recovered the colt would be returned to him.
The first to school Istabraq over hurdles was the young stable jockey, Charlie Swan. As they moved from the baby hurdles to the “real deal,” Istabraq demonstrated a flair for jumping. He didn’t back away and he didn’t hesitate. Swan recalls, “He was quite amazing, a real natural.” It was the beginning of a famous partnership.
Even at the very beginning, while he was still in training, ISTABRAQ demonstrated his jumping talent.
In Istabraq’s first start over hurdles at Punchestown (IRE), O’Brien instructed Swan to focus on making the experience an enjoyable one for the horse. To that end, he told the jockey to drop Istabraq behind and, if he felt that the horse was willing and ready, to move him up to the leaders as they turned for home. It is the considered opinion of many that it is Aidan O’Brien’s instinctive understanding of a horse’s mind that has been the major ingredient in a stellar career. In character, O’Brien is a modest, shy man, whose greatest concern is always for the well-being of the thoroughbreds in his care. And not unlike Istabraq’s first trainer, John Gosden, O’Brien understood the virtues of patience in building up a thoroughbred’s confidence and stamina.
The plan went off perfectly until the final hurdle, where Istabraq made the kind of mistake a novice might well make, losing ground as he raced toward the finish. But the game colt finished second, beaten only by a short nose. All concerned were pleased with his performance. In defeat, Istabraq had shown the qualities of a champion — albeit an inexperienced one. And sure enough, from his second start in 1996 through to his twelfth race in 1997, Istabraq took ten hurdle races in a row; he won on courses that were rated from soft to yielding and from good to firm to heavy. Along the way, he won the hearts of a nation.
It was impossible not to love this courageous pair: Charlie and ISTABRAQ.
Over the same period, John Durkan’s valiant battle with cancer continued. His belief in Istabraq, combined with the support of family and colleagues back home in Ireland gave him the will to go on. After each race, O’Brien, McManus and/or Swan would call Sloane Kettering to share all the details of Istabraq’s performance. Sometimes John was able to hear the races live over the radio from his hospital bed. And once he made it back to Ireland to see his colt win, going 2m 3f at Leopardstown — a victory the press described as a “mere formality,” so certain were punter and fan alike of the colt’s prowess. For John, however, Leopardstown was a special moment, renewing his resolve to beat leukaemia and return to the sport — and the colt — he loved.
In March 1997, from an apartment in New York where he awaited a bone marrow transplant the following day, John was able to hear the running of the Royal Sun Alliance Novices Hurdle from Cheltenham (ENG) live via his father-in-law’s mobile phone. As John listened in, little did he know that Istabraq was giving his trainer and jockey cause to worry. As was the case with the great Nijinsky, Istabraq had inherited the “delicate sensibility” of many of the Northern Dancers. Even when home at Coolmore, he would fret if there were any changes in his routine and this had made shipping him to Cheltenham tricky. In the walking ring prior to the Sun Alliance, surrounded by noisy onlookers, Istabraq became increasingly agitated. His blood-bay coat was dark with sweat. The only solution — one that was to cost both O’Brien and Swan a small fortune in fines throughout the horse’s career — was to get Istabraq out of the walking ring and onto the race course. And although National Hunt rules prohibit a horse from going onto the course before the others, the tactic never once resulted in Istabraq’s being disqualified from a race.
As John battled cancer, Aidan O’Brien stepped in to train ISTABRAQ. Shown here in conversation with Charlie Swan.
Istabraq ran his race even though it took Swan some moments to settle him. The colt was coming up a winner when he was bumped hard by another horse as they flew over a hurdle. Charlie Swan feared his mount would go down, but miraculously the colt landed on his feet. It was unbelievable that Istabraq recovered: he had been travelling at about 30mph when the other thoroughbred cannoned into him. Istabraq was on his feet and moving, but winded. Swan gave the colt about three strides to collect himself before asking him to pick it up. And Istabraq, who had once been regarded as lacking a good turn of foot, turned it on. With a horse called Mighty Moss at his throat latch Istabraq battled back, winning the Sun Alliance by a length. Mobbed by ecstatic fans, the gelding was led into the victory enclosure. Over the din, Aidan O’Brien, JP McManus and Charlie Swan got on a mobile phone to share every moment with John Durkan. Not only had John’s bold prediction for the grandson of Secretariat come true, but Istabraq would go on to finish the 1997 season unbeaten.
As Istabraq’s star ascended, John’s health went into sharp decline. The decision was made to bring him home to Ireland where he could spend his days in the company of family and friends. Despite the fact that he was dying, John turned out to see Istabraq win The Hatton’s Grace Hurdle in November, 1997. It was the last time he would see “his lad” : on the night of January 21, 1998, John Durkan died.
ISTABRAQ and Charlie Swan in full flight at Cheltenham in 1998. Photo and copyright, George Selwyn.
Charlie Swan wore a black armband in John’s memory on the day of Istabraq’s first start in 1998, the AIG Europe Champion Hurdle at Leopardstown. The gelding, who was now 6 years old, handled the race with ease. John Durkan had been laid to rest only the day before, making it a bittersweet victory. But John’s wife, Carole, joined Istabraq in the winner’s enclosure and accepted the trophy on behalf of her late husband.
The AIG had been a final prep for Istabraq before the prestigious Smurfit Champion Hurdle Challenge Trophy, to be run at Cheltenham in March. By this point, Istabraq was a mature and experienced hurdler at the top of his form. Charlie Swan gave him a final work before the big day and as they returned to the stable, Aidan O’Brien confided, “He will bloody destroy them.” Swan was taken aback at the force of O’Brien’s conviction. “But Aidan, this is the Champion Hurdle.” To which the trainer replied, “I don’t care. He will destroy them.” And destroy them he did: Istabraq took the first of what were to be three consecutive Champion Hurdle victories by twelve lengths, in a time just shy of the record. It had been 66 years since a thoroughbred had won the trophy so decisively — and that horse had only faced a field of 4.
“This one’s for John…” ISTABRAQ and Charlie lead the field home by an astonishing 12 lengths.
Istabraq’s victories in the Champion Hurdle in 1998, 1999 and again in 2000 remain the races for which Istabraq is renowned. In the 2000 race, he not only won but set a time record and joined an elite group of four other thoroughbreds who had also clinched the trophy three times. As the Racing Post put it, “Istabraq exchanged greatness for immortality.”
Here he is in a video summary of the highlights of the career of the “Mighty Istabraq”:
“… it was the manner of Istabraq’s wins that remains shocking … he simply cruised to victory, whatever the conditions, with a grace and strength that often beggared belief.” Shown here, with Charlie Swan.
In 2001, an outbreak of foot-and-mouth forced the cancellation of the Champion Hurdle and as Istabraq’s legion of fans — together with Aidan O’Brien — insist to this day, the likelihood of his winning a fourth consecutive time. Given the fact that he had won the second and third Champion Hurdles under less-than-ideal circumstances, one could not blame them for believing that Istabraq would “destroy” the field one more time.
Returning to Cheltenham a year later as a 10 year-old, Istabraq was not the horse he had been in 2000. Days after Charlie Swan rode him off the course after only the third hurdle, Aidan O’Brien announced that the gelding had damaged the equivalent of the Achilles tendon in his hock. Istabraq was retired, having won 23 of 29 starts over jumps, with earnings of over 1 million BPS.
ISTABRAQ takes flight. Note his distance from the actual hurdle.
In 1989, the year that Secretariat died, it was discovered that he had a very large heart — literally — estimated to weigh between 22-23 lbs. It was a perfect heart in every other way. Prior to this discovery, it was thought that the great thoroughbred Phar Lap (1926) had possessed the largest heart, at 14 lbs. The discovery of Secretariat’s huge heart sparked renewed interest in X-chromosome research that had been taking place for a number of years on human runners, as well as in the work of equine geneticists like William E. Jones of California and Dr. Anthony Stewart of Australia. The X-chromosome is a more potent carrier of genetic material than the Y, although both have important roles to play in the making of a thoroughbred. But it is the X that is a possible precursor of thoroughbred performance when it is linked to the transmission of a large heart. Subsequently, it was discovered that Sham (1970), Secretariat’s mightiest rival, had a heart that weighed 18 lbs., lending credence to the probability that had he been born in any other year, Sham would have swept the Triple Crown himself. Today we know that there are 4 sire lines that transmit a large heart on the X-chromosome: Princequillo, War Admiral, Blue Larkspur and Mahmoud. These 4 sires, if one traces back the genetic pattern for the transmission of the X — which is from sire to daughter and from that daughter to her son(s) — the incidence of strong race performance is more or less continuous. Secretariat produced 4 double-copy daughters: Weekend Surprise (1980), Secrettame (1978), Terlingua (1978) and Betty’s Secret. (Double-copy because all carried Princequillo plus one or more of the other 3 sire lines on the top and bottom of their pedigrees.) All of these, in turn, produced at least one son who is a potential heart-line source, notably A.P. Indy (Weekend Surprise), Gone West (Secrettame), Storm Cat (Terlingua) and Istabraq (Betty’s Secret). Of these mares, only Betty’s Secret carried Princequillo on the top and bottom of her pedigree, suggesting that she would pass on to a son like Istabraq a “double dose” of Secretariat’s large heart.
ISTABRAQ in retirement with his best buddy, RISK OF THUNDER.
At 19, Istabraq still greets vistors at J.P. McManus’ Martinstown Stud (IRE). Although politely sociable with his fans, Istabraq’s greatest affection is reserved for his pasture pal, Risk of Thunder. Watching the two nuzzle and romp and roll in the dirt together, they are just horses. But when Istabraq’s fans come to visit, they see the greatest Irish champion hurdler who ever set foot on the turf. As if to let him know how much they love him, the Irish public voted him their favourite horse of the last 25 years in 2009.
Recently, ISTABRAQ was honoured by his Irish fans and his racing Team. Join them in this delightful short:
It’s impossible to mistake the stamp of greatness. Just watch Istabraq coming to win his first Champion Hurdle by 12 lengths in strides so enormous that he seems to be eating up the ground as he goes. Or watch how he quickens at the last, producing a mighty surge that precious few thoroughbreds could muster.
No question about it: in Istabraq, the heart of Secretariat has come home.
Still a ham for the camera, ISTABRAQ cavorts in his paddock in 2010.