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Racing: ISTABRAQ'S STILL THE HEAD BOY.

Byline: MICHAEL CLOWER

ISTABRAQ only managed to beat 20-1 shot Bust Out by a head on his reappearance in the Tote December Festival Hurdle at Leopardstown yesterday.

But, apart from the third last where he stood off too far and took it too low, his jumping was good. He was also safe at the final flight where he had fallen on two of his last three appearances on this course.

However, those bold enough to back the triple Champion Hurdle winner at 4-11 were given a fright by Bust Out who fought all the way to the line despite being hampered by the second-flight fall of Liss A Paoraigh.

Trainer Aidan O'Brien confessed to being mightily relieved and promptly announced that JP McManus's famous gelding would probably not run again before the Champion Hurdle.

He said: "I can't tell you what a relief this was. Today wasn't about winning but about him getting a clear round and coming home in one piece.

"We just wanted him to have a nice day away from home and a good school. Charlie (Swan) ensured that he did just that.

"There is a strong possibility that he now goes straight to Cheltenham. I'm not sure I could stick the pressure of another race before the Champion Hurdle!

"Also I don't think he needs another run and, as he is getting older, I want to keep the miles on the clock down."

Swan, who was able to drop his hands only in the last two strides, was winning this race for the sixth time.

"The fall of Liss A Paoraigh didn't help me. I was in a good position until then and after that Istabraq ran a bit free," said the nine-time Irish champion.

"It was probably my fault that he was a bit too long at the third last but the sun was shining on the hurdle and there was a big shadow in front of it. But Istabraq is as good as ever."

Ladbrokes left him an unchanged 11-10 favourite to become the first horse in history to win four Champion Hurdles.

Jessica Harrington, thrilled with Bust Out's performance, is considering taking advantage of Istabraq's probable absence to come back here for the AIG Europe Champion Hurdle on January 27.

The Moone trainer said: "He is in the Pierse Hurdle here on January 13 but he has had leg trouble and I wonder if he should be risked in the rough and tumble of a big field.

"I expected him to run a big race and I told the owners beforehand that I thought he would be second although I didn't expect him to finish so close to Istabraq. He will be entered for the Champion Hurdle and next season he goes chasing."

The Beechcourt bubble was expensively burst in the End Of Year Flat Race when the 1-2 shot trailed in third of four, 22 lengths behind the winner, Ar Muin Na Muice.

He had been favourite for the Festival Bumper but bookmaker Paddy Power had little hesitation in taking Michael O'Brien's gelding out of the betting. They now make Alexander Milennium 4-1 favourite.

CAPTION(S):

OVER YOU GO: Istabraq jumps the last on his way to a close run victory at Leopardstown yesterday
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Title Annotation:Sport
Publication:Sunday Mirror (London, England)
Date:Dec 30, 2001
Words:542
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