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Monday 22 September 2014

10 Greatest Champion Hurdlers

As Willie Mullins' diminutive Hurricane Fly aims for further glory, Richard Forristal outlines his best repeat Champion Hurdle winners

Published 08/03/2014 | 02:30

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14 March 2000; Istabraq with Charlie Swan up clears the final hurdle with Blue Royal, Mick Fitzgerald up to win the Smurfit Champion Hurdle at Cheltenham, England. Picture credit; SPORTSFILE
Istabraq with Charlie Swan up
Cheltenham Racing Festival 2013
19 January 2013; Trainer Willie Mullins. Naas Racecourse, Naas, Co. Kildare. Picture credit: Paul Mohan / SPORTSFILE
19 January 2013; Trainer Willie Mullins. Naas Racecourse, Naas, Co. Kildare. Picture credit: Paul Mohan / SPORTSFILE

Next week, Hurricane Fly will bid to further embellish his already stellar legacy in the Stan James Champion Hurdle by joining an elite five-strong realm of three-time victors. Willie Mullins' diminutive Grade One-winning superstar is the latest distinguished name to grace the roll of honour as a multiple winner of the prestigious two-miler, emulating Comedy Of Errors (1973 and 1975) by reclaiming his crown last year.

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If the 10-year-old were to join an even loftier pantheon of all-time greats, he would become the first to complete an interrupted hat-trick, and this time he is bidding to close a 33-year gap since Sea Pigeon was the last to win aged 10 or older.

Given the fierce standard of opposition, it is an enormous ask, though Hurricane Fly was a latecomer to the Festival, having missed his first two dates due to injury. That might yet stand to him, with an interesting precedent in Hatton's Grace, which didn't win his first until he was nine.

Here are 10 of the best repeat winners since Vincent O'Brien's original triple champion achieved that landmark first Irish success. We've excluded Hurricane Fly simply because his destiny cannot yet be fully quantified, with Bula the only other to lose out in that time. Something had to give.

In so many other ways, though, Hardy Eustace was Istabraq's polar opposite, a grinding front-runner that thrived in blinkers. When Dessie Hughes first applied the headgear, Conor O'Dwyer kidded his 33/1 partner home beautifully to slam the reigning champion Rooster Booster by five lengths.

A year later, O'Dwyer outfoxed Paul Carberry and the enigmatic Harchibald by a neck, with the 2006 winner Brave Inca back in third in a truly epic edition. While Hardy Eustace's return of 12 wins from 41 hurdle starts is modest, that 50pc of his Grade One haul was achieved at Cheltenham in March is testament to his wily handler's skills. He was always right when it mattered most.

1 ISTABRAQ (1998-2000)

Few could have envisaged the fate that lay in store for Istabraq when he was sent to Aidan O'Brien after John Durkan, the ambitious 31-year-old who advised the purchase on JP McManus's behalf, fell ill with leukaemia. The plan was for Durkan to resume his training once he recovered from treatment, something that tragically never happened. He died two months before Istabraq's first champion hurdle rout in 1998, so the exquisite hurdler's entire career was laced with poignancy.

A consummately polished superstar, Istabraq's cumulative winning distance in the Champion Hurdle was a yawning 19.5 lengths. Successful in 23 of his 29 hurdles, he and Charlie Swan formed one of the most iconic partnerships of modern times, though they were cruelly denied the chance to emulate Golden Miller's five Festival wins when the meeting was lost to Foot and Mouth in 2001.

When Istabraq eventually got the opportunity 12 months later at 10 years of age, he was a shadow of his sublime old self. Swan promptly pulled him up after jumping two flights, but his glorious legacy is untarnished. They don't come much better. He was the horse of a lifetime.

2 NIGHT NURSE (1976–77)

Still considered by some commentators to be the best hurdler of all time, Night Nurse was in his pomp during hurdling's glory days. A bold, game front-runner that hurdled with rare precision, Peter Easterby's colossus numbered Lanzarote and Comedy Of Errors – holders of three previous crowns – among his victims when he stormed to a first Champion Hurdle victory in 1976.

His successful defence came about in an even more vintage renewal, with subsequent dual winners Monksfield and Sea Pigeon proving no match for Paddy Broderick's illustrious partner. Typical of the sort of durable National Hunt horse that defined the era, Night Nurse enhanced his legend over fences, finishing second to stable-mate Little Owl in the 1981 Cheltenham Gold Cup.

3 PERSIAN WAR (1968-1970)

Persian War was a triple Champion Hurdle winner with a pugilistic bent. Twice he hit his head off a hurdle, losing two teeth the first time and then left prostrate on the ground the second. After one of his many forays to France, at his eccentric owner Henry Alper's behest, he joined Colin Davies.

The shrewd handler saddled him to three successive Champion Hurdle victories on ground ranging from firm to heavy. With Alper insisting on racing Persian War on the Flat during the summer, he was a remarkably tough horse that never got a break, even recovering from a fractured femur that he suffered when he fell on the level at Worcester the season after his first Champion success.

He struggled with breathing problems as he got older, to the extent that his final Champion Hurdle coup in 1970 was his only win that term. Moved to Arthur Pitt subsequently, Persian War lost masses of blood during surgery to remove a tooth, yet his iron constitution still saw him finish second to Bula in the feature at Cheltenham come March. They don't make 'em like that anymore!

4 HATTON'S GRACE (1949-1951)

Vincent O'Brien originally took the jumps scene by storm from Churchtown in Co Cork. The legendary handler saddled Cottage Rake to win the first of three Gold Cups in 1948, and his scruffier-looking stable-mate Hatton's Grace initiated his hat-trick under Aubrey Brabazon in 1949.

Bought for just 18 guineas, Hatton's Grace was six years old before he graced the track due to wartime restrictions. He dominated the field en route to scoring by six lengths in the prestigious Prestbury Park two-miler in 1949 and followed up with similar authority in 1950.

When he and Tim Molony completed his glorious feat as an 11-year-old, he was about to pass the former dual winner National Spirit at the last flight when the leader fell. Hatton's Grace strode home in bottomless ground to enter the history books.

5 SEE YOU THEN (1985-87)

Nowadays, we blame modern training sensibilities when horses are raced sparingly, but such was the scarcity with which Nicky Henderson's exceptional triple champion ran that he was often referred to as 'See You When.' regally-bred and fragile, See You Then was all quality.

Henderson's cautious approach reaped rich dividends, as the sheer class of his electric jumper – ridden to each of his three wins by Steve Smith-Eccles after Francome missed the first through injury – shone brightly on the few occasions he graced the track each term.

Notoriously hostile to handle, See You Then cruised to successive triumphs with tremendous flair, and signed off with 10 wins from just 15 starts when his legs finally gave in ahead of a fourth shot.

6 SEA PIGEON (1980-81)

Sea Pigeon, classy enough to run in an Epsom Derby, possessed rare acceleration. A decorated flat racer, he was a mercurial hold-up horse that got racing too early in the 1978 and 1979 champions.

He led off the home turn in 1979 before Monksfield fought back, but a change in the track lay-out 12 months later would prove all-important. The race was reduced in length by 200 yards to two miles dead, something that suited his searing turn of pace to far better effect.

Jonjo O'Neill produced Sea Pigeon to join Monksfield at the last flight, before finally unleashing his turn of foot halfway up the run-in.

It was his fourth attempt at 10 years of age, and John Francome, standing in for the injured O'Neill, replicated the daring tactics superbly in 1981.

Like Night Nurse, Sea Pigeon was trained by Peter Easterby, and the inscription over the grave that they share in Yorkshire reads simply: 'Legends in their Lifetime.'

7 SIR KEN (1952–54)

Sir Ken, a French import trained by Willie Stephenson, promptly became a second hat-trick hero after Hatton's Grace, successful in 20 of his 29 races, he remains a giant of the game, his legend enhanced by an unlikely episode that ended with the death of a field companion after a fight.

Having been aboard Hatton's Grace in 1951, Tim Molony completed a remarkable four-timer on Sir Ken, and the Limerick-born jockey remains the race's most successful rider.

At one point, so invincible was Sir Ken that he won 16 consecutive races, a feat bettered only by Big Buck's in 2012. He later won the Arkle Trophy and Mildmay of Flete Chases at the same Festival in 1956.

8 MONKSFIELD (1978-79)

A major player in Hurdling's revered Golden era, which yielded six repeat champion hurdle heroes in 14 years, Monksfield was a diminutive stallion with a big heart. Trained in Co.Meath by Des McDonogh, he split fellow giants Night Nurse and Sea Pigeon in an absorbing tussle in 1977.

Monksfield and Night Nurse then dead-heated in a thrilling edition of the Aintree Hurdle, before McDonogh's brave charge toppled Peter Easterby's stable star in emphatic fashion under 44-year-old Tommy Kinane at Cheltenham in 1978. Sea Pigeon was the meat in the sandwich on that occasion, and he was again left to chase Monksfield home 12 months later when he simply couldn't match his conqueror's tenacity up the hill, with Dessie Hughes now having taken over from Kinane.

9 COMEDY OF ERRORS (1973 AND 1975)

Prior to Hurricane Fly, Comedy Of Errors was the only horse to regain the Champion Hurdle mantle after losing it. The Fred Rimmell-trained gelding accounted for dual winner Bula when securing his first, swooping around the outside to lead 50 yards from the line for Bill Smith.

He had no answer to Lanzarote a year later, though they had it to themselves for a long way and he gained revenge in 1975. Under Ken White that time, he again came wide before storming home.

10 HARDY EUSTACE (2004-05)

Dessie Hughes emulated his old partner Monksfield's Feat by saddling the redoubtable Hardy Eustace to a stunning double. Like Istabraq, Hardy Eustace first won the festival's Royal and Sun Alliance Hurdle, and his subsequent courageous Prestbury Park triumphs were tinged with sadness after the death of Hughes' stable jockey Kieran Kelly following a bad fall at Kilbeggan in 2003.

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