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Champion Istabraq back to his true brilliance

THE prophets of doom and the scaremongers who doubted Istabraq's enduring supremacy as a hurdler looked silly in the extreme as the most popular Irish

THE prophets of doom and the scaremongers who doubted Istabraq's enduring supremacy as a hurdler looked silly in the extreme as the most popular Irish jumper since Arkle boosted hopes of an historic fourth Smurfit Champion Hurdle triumph at Leopardstown yesterday.

More than 11,000 spectators turned up to see Aidan O'Brien's ever-popular performer push his career earnings well past the magical £1m mark and silence those who were beginning to doubt his capabilities after that New Year's Eve fall from grace.

Looking fitter and sharper than he had when contesting the AIB Festival Hurdle over the course and distance three weeks earlier, the heavily-backed favourite strode majestically to his fourth AIG Europe Irish Champion Hurdle victory in succession, sending the bookmakers scurrying for cover.

Offers earlier in the week of odds against Istabraq making history at Cheltenham on March 13 by becoming the first horse to win four championships in a row at the Festival were instantly revised as Charlie Swan's mount threw a big, bold jump at the final flight to emphasise that the appetite and ability is still there at nine years of age.

"They say it is impossible for a horse to win five years in a row at Cheltenham. But this could be the one to achieve the impossible," said an understandably proud Aidan O'Brien as he was mobbed by the media and Istabraq fans in the winners' enclosure.

Busloads of supporters from the Limerick area sporting the green and orange colours of their local hero JP McManus added to the sense of occasion.

Istabraq justified plenty of support in the bookies ring as he was backed from 2/1 on to 11/4 on to record the 22nd victory of a 26 race career.

Before yesterday's tour de force, the McManus superstar had earned over £998,000 and this latest triumph in the first running of the AIG promotion as a £100,000 contest saw another £66,500 credited to the horse's account.

Even more important though, the horse is now a 1/2 chance at best to defy advancing age and the best efforts of his opponents when we assemble at Cheltenham on March 13.

Before coming under seige from the media, Aidan O'Brien told me: "Istabraq did everything we had hoped for here today and there's a lot more to come still."

That alone will be music to the ears of the Istabraq fan club, as will Aidan's assertion that the most famous inmate at Ballydoyle is back to something like his best.

"We never had any doubts about the horse even though he fell for the first time here in the AIB Hurdle. JP suggested that schooling would do him no harm, and I was very pleased with the way he went over six hurdles at home on Thursday morning."

Norman Williamson, pleased that his mount Mantles Prince had taken the runner-up berth, said: "This was a cracking trial for Cheltenham. It rode a real good race but it was a pity that Moscow Flyer fell two out as it left Charlie and me in front too soon."

Moscow Flyer happily seemed none the worse for his lapse of concentration as the tempo increased dramatically at the second-last flight.

"Barry Geraghty said our horse was back on the bridle and going well when he took off a stride too soon. The horse was keen and Barry was trying to get him to pop his hurdles. We will give him some schooling and go straight to Cheltenham without another race," said trainer Jessica Harrington.

Mantles Prince however, will be taking in the Red Mills Trial Hurdle at his local Gowran Park meeting next month before taking his chance in the Smurfit promotion at the Festival, according to trainer Pat Hughes.

Penny Rich ran the race of his life in third for Nenagh trainer Tom Hogan who will saddle this bargain purchase for the Supreme Novices Hurdle that opens the Cheltenham Festival.

A decision on Stage Affair's Cheltenham's prospects will not be made for at least another week.

"He seemed to be travelling well to the second last, but after the melee which put him off his game he literally never got going again," said trainer Dermot Weld.

Smurfit Champion Hurdle betting: Paddy Power: 2/5 Istabraq, 8/1 Geos, 12/1 Barton, 16/1 Hitman, 20/1 Youlneverwalkalone, Hors La Loi III, Stage Affair, Moscow Flyer, Mantles Prince, 25/1 Mr Cool, Landing Light, 33/1 bar.