Countdown to Cheltenham. #14: Istabraq, 2002.

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With 14 days before the opening roar of the opening day of Cheltenham, I bring you my Festival Fourteen. A countdown to the big day – recaps rather than previews. Not necessarily the best performers or performances since I started going to Cheltenham in 2002, but the ones who left an indelible mark – the ones who changed my day, my mood, my wallet, or my life.

Number 14. Istabraq. 2002.

It was my first Cheltenham. His last. The three-time winner of the Champion Hurdle had missed his first chance at four when foot-and-mouth closed the country in 2001. I had retired in 2000 and began a checklist of things I hadn’t been able to do because of my career (yes, it was a career) as a jump jockey in America. Cheltenham was number one on the list. Missing 2001 made it even sweeter in 2002.

I had heard of Istabraq, knew he came from Ireland, knew he had won at the Festival, at least a few times. That’s about all.

I hitched a ride with American long shots Pelagos and Solo Lord, galloping them in the morning, taking them for walks in the afternoon, living in the hostel at the top of the Cheltenham hill, the horses pulled up at my window. Two bunk beds per room, shower down the hall, canteen at the top of the stairs and every good horse from Ireland and England, right there in front of us.

It was sweet. And cheap.

Things hadn’t gone right for Istabraq that year. His armor had begun to squeak, only running four times since winning the Champion Hurdle in 2000 (watch it here). In 2000, jockey Charlie Swan sat like he was waiting for a phone call, picked up his whip after the last and nearly hit him, then he simply waved it. Since then, he had fallen twice and won twice. He had made just one start that season, a head decision over Bust Out in December. Bust Out was rated 25 pounds less than Istabraq and rumors flew that the champ was not at his best.

Aidan O’Brien, Istabraq’s trainer, didn’t sound confident after the race. Quoted in the Racing Post, O’Brien told the truth, “We’ll try to keep the miles off the clock. He’s getting older, and he might be around a bit longer if we can look after him.”

O’Brien tried to look after him, arriving at the Festival and hoping his 23-time hurdle winner could pull one more trick out of a hat that had become shallower by the day.

Istabraq jumped two flights and was struggling. Charlie Swan, knowing what the real Istabraq felt like, pulled him up on the turn, at the highest part of the course. The vanquished champ eased to a walk, then a halt (watch it here).  His rivals descended left and rolled down the hill and there was Istabraq standing, sky behind him. The crowd paused, trying to comprehend what had just happened, in two flights, it had gone from a bellowing roar to a deafening silence, yes a deafening silence, and then it came alight again. The crowd erupted, cheering for their hero, knowing it was the last time they would ever see him in public. For me, it was the first time I had seen him in public, I stumbled for understanding, for clarity. When the crowd erupted, applauded, and Istabraq literally walked off into the sunset, I started to understand what I had been missing.

Istabraq’s early departure left questions.

For me, it had answered everything.  

– Tomorrow, I bring you Junior.