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Racing: BRAQ IS FOUR MINUTES AWAY FROM BEING GREATEST.

Byline: Peter O'HEHIR

A NATION will hold its breath today as Istabraq bids for racing history at Cheltenham.

The remarkable 10-year-old joined an elite band of triple winners of the Champion Hurdle two years but was denied an opportunity to rewrite history last year.

Now Istabraq tries to overshadow the achievements of Hatton's Grace, Sir Ken, Persian War and See You Then by becoming the first horse to win four Champion Hurdles.

Aidan O'Brien has suggested that it will be a "miracle" if Istabraq triumphs again, to record a fifth Festival success.

Rumours about a succession of problems allegedly dogging JP McManus' pride and joy have been rife. But the son of Sadler's Wells is now just four minutes away from immortality.

His record since landing his third Champion in 2000 is not particularly impressive - two wins and two falls.

And his only appearance this season, a narrow victory over BUST OUT at Leopardstown at Christmas, was not convincing.

The Ballydoyle team opted to change his traditional Festival build-up, by by-passing his customary stepping-stone, the AIG Europe Champion Hurdle.

Only's today's action at 3.15. will tell us whether the great horse retains enough ability to spark unprecedented celebrations.

Both Aidan O'Brien and Charlie Swan appear cautiously up-beat about Istabraq's prospects of making it five-from-five at the Festival.

VALIRAMIX, successful at Newbury in his only outing this season, and Nicky Henderson's Kempton winner LANDING LIGHT have emerged as the leading pretenders to Istabraq's throne.

But, realistically, neither has achieved enough to suggest they can topple the champion if he's close to his best.

Only time will tell how much of that old sparkle Istabraq retains.

Of the other five Irish-trained Champion contenders, only John Kiely's mare LISS A PAORAIGH can be given a realistic chance of reaching the frame.

CAPTION(S):

CLOSE: Bust Out, narrowly beaten by Istabraq; EACH WAY CHANCE: Liss A Paoraigh
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Title Annotation:Sport
Publication:The Mirror (London, England)
Date:Mar 12, 2002
Words:314
Previous Article:Racing: Looks Like Trouble.. for the others.
Next Article:Racing: I'VE WAITED TWO YEARS FOR THIS; Ista time to make Cheltenham history SMURFIT CHAMPION HURDLE: IRELAND'S FAVOURITE BIDS TO BE A RECORD BREAKER.


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