This week we take another look back. This time it is my own personal top ten hurdlers. As always these lists are very much a personal taste item. Only horses from 1990 onwards were considered.
10 Make A Stand
His greatest success came in the 1996–1997 National Hunt season when he won nine races, including the 1997 Champion Hurdle. Make A Stand came to my attention January, Make a Stand led from the start to win unchallenged in the Lanzarote Hurdle at Kempton. A large rise in the weights made no difference as he then produced his best performance yet to win the Tote Gold Trophy (now the Betfair Hurdle). The run of Make a Stand was described as an "astonishing display" as he "obliterated" the other runners to win by nine lengths. Martin Pipe described him after the race as "a very good, tough horse, a real athlete". I backed Make A Stand in the Lanzarote and The Tote Gold Trophy. At Cheltenham, Make A Stand was sent off at 7-1 for the Champion Hurdle, I was on him again against a field that brought together the best hurdlers in Britain and Ireland. Adopting his usual front-running tactics, he came home a five-length winner from Theatreworld. On the day Make a Stand produced an incredible display of speed and hurdling. The partnership with Tony McCoy was a brilliant one. Make A Stand was dogged by injuries after the Champion Hurdle, he never won again. Make A Stand showcased the brilliant talents of Martin Pipe perfectly during the 1996–1997 season.
9 Buveur d'Air
After winning twice in his native France he moved to England. Buveur d'Air ran an excellent third in the Supreme behind Min and Altior. Buveur d'Air won the Top Novices Hurdle at the Aintree festival in 2016. In the following season, he won two Chases before reverting to hurdles to win the Contenders Hurdle at Sandown and then recording his biggest success in the Champion Hurdle in 2016. In the 2017–18 season Buveur d'Air was unbeaten, winning the Fighting Fifth at Newcastle, the Christmas Hurdle at Kempton and a second Champion Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival. Buveur d'Air has yet to get the credit he deserves, that may come when he retires. In my view, Buveur d'Air is among the top hurdlers I have seen. I think his hurdling is so slick. I admit he gets very low, however, that's what makes him so quick over them. I hope Buveur d'Air makes a successful comeback from his current injuries. Whatever happens, Buveur d'Air has already had a tremendous career.
I was a big fan of Kribensis a dashing grey. Kribensis was owned by Sheikh Mohamed and trained by Sir Michael Stoute. Kribensis gave Sheikh Mohammed his first Cheltenham Festival win when he won the Triumph Hurdle in 1988. In 1989/90, with jockey Richard Dunwoody at the helm, Kribensis became the first horse to win the Fighting Fifth at Newcastle, the Christmas Hurdle at Kempton and the Champion Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival in the same season. I will never forget the jump Kribensis produced at the last to seal the Champion Hurdle a more spectacular jump you will not see. Kribensis is one of three horses, along with Persian War and Katchit, to have won the Triumph Hurdle and Champion Hurdle in their racing careers.
7 Annie Power
An amazing mare she won fifteen of her seventeen races. The only two defeats of Annie Power's career came at the Cheltenham Festival. In 2014 she just did not stay the three miles in the Stayers hurdle going down by one and a half lengths. Annie Power then returned to Cheltenham in 2015 for the Mares hurdle after a break of more than ten months. What happened in this race will never be forgotten in Cheltenham history. The Willie Mullins stable had already sent out three winners on the day and numerous combination bets depended on the mare's run. Starting the odds-on favourite Annie Power took the lead at the second last and was going to win easily before falling at the last hurdle in a race won by Glens Melody. British bookmakers Ladbrokes described it as "the £50 million fall" whilst for the punters perspective it was called "the most expensive fall in National Hunt history". The majority of punters had the Mullins four-timer done. I will never forget the silence that descended on Prestbury Park after the initial shook of the fall passed.
Following another lengthy absence, Annie Power returned to the track in a minor event at Punchestown on 17 February 2016. She was made the 1/20 favourite winning easily. Annie Power had been originally entered in the World Hurdle and the OLBG Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival. However, after the injury to her stablemates Faugheen and Arctic Fire, she was redirected to contest the Champion Hurdle after her owners paid a supplementary entry fee of £20,000. Annie Power started the 5/2 favourite for the Champion Hurdle. Ridden by Ruby Walsh, she took the lead from the start and was never headed. Annie Power drew away from the field approaching the second last and stayed on strongly on the run-in to win by four and a half lengths and a head from My Tent Or Yours and Nichols Canyon. Annie Power became only the fourth mare to win the Champion Hurdle. Annie Power was a tremendous horse, however, having won the Champion Hurdle it did make you wonder if she had not had to avoid stablemates, how many she could have won. The Annie Power story may not be over as in retirement she has foaled two colts by Galileo.
6 Brave Inca
Brave Inca unlike many on this list had a very low key start to his career. Brave Inca failed to win any of his first four starts over hurdles. Brave Inca reverted to bumpers winning both. Because of his early failures, Brave Inca entered the 2003/2004 season as a novice hurdler. He then went unbeaten in five starts. After picking up two handicaps before Christmas, he won his first major prize by defeating Newmill in the Grade I Deloitte Novice Hurdle at Leopardstown. At Cheltenham, Brave Inca was sent off 7-2 favourite for the Supreme Novice Hurdle and won by a neck over future Gold Cup winner War Of Attrition. The win provoked "near-hysterical" celebrations among the large Irish contingent, with trainer Colm Murphy being carried shoulder-high into the winner's enclosure. In his final start of the season in the Grade One Evening Herald at Punchestown, Brave Inca defeated the English-trained Top Novice Hurdle winner Royal Shakespeare by a short head. Brave Inca found life out of novice company hard only winning one of his next seven starts. Brave Inca was sent off as a 10-1 chance for his first attempt at the Champion Hurdle in 2005. In an eventful race, he finished third, beaten two necks by Hardy Eustace and Harchibald in one of the great races. Tony McCoy took over at Punchestown. It was a Grade One win for Brave Inca at the Punchestown Festival to round off the 2004-2005 season.
Although he was already seven years old at the start of the 2005/6 season, Brave Inca appeared to be reaching his peak, an impression that was confirmed when McCoy rode him to victory in the Morgiana Hurdle a Grade one, beating Harchibald and Macs Joy again. After another failed attempt at the Hattons Grace Hurdle, he confirmed his superiority over the best two-mile hurdlers in Ireland with a convincing victory in the December Festival Hurdle a Grade One. A triumph in the Irish Champion Hurdle meant that Brave Inca was seen as the potential champion by the time of the 2006 Cheltenham Festival Sent off 7-4 favourite in a field of 18, Brave Inca landed the odds in the Champion Hurdle winning by a length from Macs Joy, with Hardy Eustace three lengths back in third. The partnership with Tony McCoy and Brave Inca was a match made in heaven. A jockey and a horse neither of who would ever give up. Brave Inca missed the whole of the 2007/8 season with a tendon injury but returned in 2008/9. Although now well past his best, Brave Inca managed one last major victory by winning the Irish Champion Hurdle at the age of 11. A top hurdler who was part of a golden generation of Irish Hurdlers. I think commentator Simon Holt summed up best " Brave Inca the bravest of the brave"
Jezki having shown promise in bumper races he won five times as a novice hurdler in the 2012/2013 season, with his victories including the Fishery Lane at Navan, the Royal Bond Grade one at Fairyhouse, the Future Champions Novice Hurdle Grade one at Leopardstown and the Evening Herald Novice Hurdle at the Punchestown Festival another Grade one. Jezki won the Punchestown race by sixteen lengths. Jezki also finished third in the Supreme at the Cheltenham Festival. The partnership with Barry Geraghty and Jezki was very important. Jezki was undefeated under Geraghty at this point in his career. The 2013/2014 season saw Tony McCoy take over as the jockey. Jezki was then stepped up in distance for the Grade one Hatton's Grace Hurdle over two and a half miles. In the Champion Hurdle at Cheltenham, Jezki was ridden by Geraghty as McCoy had opted to ride the Nicky Hendeson trained My Tent Or Yours who was also owned by J P McManus. Jezki was a brilliant winner on the day. Jezki first repelled a challenge from Hurricane Fly and then held off the late run of My Tent Or Yours to claim the championship by a neck. Jezki finished the season by taking the Grade one Punchestown Champion Hurdle defeating Hurricane Fly.
The career of Jezki was dominated by his regular clashes with Hurricane Fly. The duo made it great races at Leopardstown. They clashed four times at Leopardstown with Hurricane Fly winning them all. They clashed three times at Punchestown with Jezki winning twice. The duo also clashed twice at Cheltenham with Jezki winning once and Hurricane Fly defeating Jezki once. Jezki finished his 2015 season by winning the Grade One Aintree Hurdle over two and a half miles and a Grade One win in the Punchestown Stayers Hurdle over three miles. Jezki sustained a leg injury in 2015 despite competing with distinction from 2017 onwards. Jezki was never the same again. Jezki an eight-time Grade one hurdler was right up with the very best I have seen. A Grade One Winner at Two Miles, Two and Half Miles and Three Miles. I loved following Jezki around, one of my all-time favourites for sure.
Faugheen is best known for winning the 2015 Champion Hurdle and back-to-back Christmas Hurdles at Kempton in 2014 and 2015. His best performance on a racecourse came in the 2016 Irish Champion Hurdle for which he was rated the best two-mile hurdler of the 21st century. Faugheen was a top novice hurdler. His career started over Point to Point fences as a four-year-old and was sent racing under National rules in the 2013/2014 season where Faugheen emerged as a leading Novice Hurdler, winning all of his races including the Dorans Pride Novice Hurdle at Limerick, Neptune Novice Hurdle (now the Ballymore) and the Evening Herald Novice Hurdle at the Punchestown Festival acquiring the nickname "The Machine" in the process. The win in the Champion Hurdle 2015 saw Faugheen defeat previous winners Hurricane Fly and Jezki easily. The latter stages of Faugheen's career were badly hit by injuries. Faugheen did take the Grade 1 Stayers Hurdle at the Punchestown Festival in April 2018 winning by thirteen lengths. Faugheen as an eleven-year-old was a Grade One Novice winner over fences at Limerick defeating Samcro. Faugheen then won a Grade one over fences at the Dublin Racing Festival. Faugheen ran a cracker at the Cheltenham Festival beaten just over a length in the Grade One Marsh Novice Chase. A magnificent horse with a wonderful career.
3 Hardy Eustace
Destined for stardom from a young age winning the valuable Land Rover Bumper at Fairyhouse on only his second start. Hardy Eustace began the 2002/03 season with a warm-up run in a flat race at Navan, where he finished fifth. In his next race, which was his first over hurdles, he finished first in a maiden hurdle at Punchestown but was disqualified. Hardy Eustace was moved to Grade One class for his next start in the Royal Bond, which he won by one and a half lengths from Back In Front. Hardy Eustace then won another novice hurdle before finishing second to Solerina in the Deloitte & Touche Novice Hurdle. Hardy Eustace then went to the Cheltenham in March 2003, where he won the RSA Novice Hurdle under Kieran Kelly. Hardy Eustace had one more run that season, where he finished fifth behind Iris's Gift in the Sefton Novices Hurdle at Aintree Grand National Festival. The jockey of Hardy Eustace Kieran Kelly was tragically killed in an accident at Kilbeggan Races in August 2003.
Hardy Eustace began the 2003/04 season with a warm-up run on the flat at Navan again, which he won. Hardy Eustace then finished 2nd behind Rosaker in the Lismullen Hurdle at Navan before finishing last in the December Festival Hurdle. Hardy Eustace next finished runner up in both Cleeve Hurdle and the Red Mills Trial Hurdle. After this, Hardy Eustace came back to Cheltenham for the Champion Hurdle, for which he was sent off a 33/1 chance. However, he belied his long odds and won the race with a front-running performance, with Rooster Booster back in second. I backed Hardy Eustace at 40/1 in the morning along with my wife Siobhan. I was hoping he would nick a place from the front. I was a superb ride from Connor O'Dwyer. Hardy Eustace followed that up with another victory over Rooster Booster in the Punchestown Champion Hurdle, which was his last run for the season.
The following season (2004/05), Hardy Eustace was placed in his first 3 runs of the season: the Tara Hurdle, December Festival Hurdle and the AIG Europe Champion Hurdle. Hardy Eustace then went to Gowran Park to win the Red Mills Trial Hurdle before coming back to Cheltenham for the Champion Hurdle again, where he was sent off the 7/2 joint-favourite. Hardy Eustace led throughout the race and held off a challenge from Harchibald to win by a neck with Brave Inca a further neck back in third. To this day it is still the most exciting race I have watched at any racecourse. Siobhan stayed loyal to Hardy Eustace, I went with Brave Inca. The site of Hardy Eustace, Harchibald and Brave Inca fighting it out up the Cheltenham hill will live with me forever.
The 2005/06 season began with a comfortable success for Hardy Eustace at Punchestown, where he returned at odds of 1/8. He then disappointed in the AIG Europe Champion Hurdle, where he finished last of seven runners behind the winner, Brave Inca. After that, Hardy Eustace came back to Cheltenham, where he was looking to win the Champion Hurdle for the third year running, but was third behind Brave Inca. Hardy Eustace was carried out on his shield running a cracker. Hardy Eustace had two more runs that season, finishing second in the Aintree Hurdle and third in the Punchestown Champion Hurdle.
In the 2006/07 season, Hardy Eustace went back to Leopardstown, where he won the AIG Europe Champion Hurdle. He had two more runs that season but failed to win, finishing fourth in the Champion Hurdle at Cheltenham and third in the Punchestown Champion Hurdle. Hardy Eustace was retired in 2009 a remarkable career which saw him contest four Champion Hurdles finishing 1134. Hardy Eustace was part of a golden age of Irish hurdles, he was also superbly trained by Dessie Hughes.
2 Hurricane Fly
The Fly adored by the masses especially his hordes of scarf-wearing fans. A dual winner of the Champion Hurdle and previously held the world record for most Grade 1 (or Group 1) races won by any racehorse until overtaken by Winx in 2019. Originally bred to be a flat racer, the Fly began his racing career in France where he had moderate success, winning twice in ten races. At the end of 2007, Hurricane Fly was sold and transferred to Ireland where he began to compete in National events. In 2008 Hurricane Fly bolted up on Hurdles debut in Ireland 7-5-2008. The Fly was not seen again until the Grade One Royal Bond winning by a neck. Hurricane Fly then followed up by winning the Grade One Future Champions Novice Hurdle at Leopardstown by ten lengths to Go Native. The Fly missed Cheltenham with a setback the horse he defeated at Leopardstown Go Native went on to win the Supreme at Cheltenham. Hurricane Fly made it back for the Punchestown Festival the Evening Herald Novice Hurdle a Grade One. The 2009/2010 season his first out of novice. On his first appearance as a senior hurdler, Hurricane Fly started the 8/13 favourite for the Punchestown Hurdle but finished third of the four runners to Solwhit. On Hurricane Fly's only other appearance of the season returned to Punchestown in April and defeated Solwhit by a neck in the Punchestown Champion Hurdle a Grade One.
Hurricane Fly was undefeated in five starts in the 2010/2011 National Hunt season. In December he defeated Solwhit in two Group One races: the Hattons Grace Hurdle at Fairyhouse and the December Festival Hurdle at Leopardstown. In January Hurricane Fly won the Irish Champion Hurdle and was then sent to the Cheltenham Festival for the first time to contest the Champion Hurdle. Racing for the first time in England, Hurricane Fly started the 11/4 favourite in a field of eleven runners and was ridden by Ruby Walsh. Hurricane Fly took the lead at the last flight of hurdles and won by one and a quarter lengths from Peddlers Cross. After the race, Walsh described the winner as a "deserved champion" and "a great horse".Hurricane Fly ended his season by beating Thousand Stars by five lengths in the Punchestown Champion Hurdle on 6 May. After finishing third in the 2012 Champion Hurdle, Hurricane Fly became the first horse in thirty-eight years to regain the Champion Hurdle title by winning the race for the second time in 2013. On 26 April 2013 Hurricane Fly had his 16th Grade One victory in the Punchestown Champion Hurdle equalling the record for Grade 1 wins previously shared by Kauto Star and John Henry. Hurricane Fly took sole possession of the record when winning the Morgiana Hurdle on 17 November 2013. In 2014 Hurricane Fly started 11/4 favourite to win his third Champion Hurdle at Cheltenham on 11 March. Hurricane Fly briefly disputed the lead after the second last but eventually finished fourth behind Jezki. There was a great rivalry between Jezki and Hurricane Fly. I have to say as a hurdler Hurricane Fly had everything as a hurdler, pace, bravery and a brilliant jump. The Fly had a great will to win. Hurricane Fly also boasted a perfect ten wins from ten races record at Leopardstown all Grade Ones. Hurricane Fly an amazing horse and a great champion.
The greatest hurdler I have seen no doubt in my mind. Istabraq was sold to John Durkan who had been an assistant to John Gosden with the RSA Hurdle as the target for the Cheltenham Festival. Durkan started training the horse but was diagnosed with Leukaemia and suggested that Aidan O'Brien train Istabraq while he was ill. The agreement was that when Durkan recovered, he would take over the training. However, he died just before Istabraq won the 1998 Irish Champion Hurdle. O'Brien continued to train the horse afterwards. Istabraq would increase the growing reputation of Aidan O'Brien.
On 16 November 1996 Istabraq made his hurdling debut and lost by a head to Noble Thyne at Punchestown, but for a mistake late on Istabraq would have won. It would be the last mistake Istabraq would make for a very long time. I first saw Istabraq on 1-12-96 at Fairyhouse. Istabraq pulverised the field in the Royal Bond. I was blown away by him. I had never seen anything like Istabraq before. He won his next three races before the Cheltenham Festival sweeping all before him. Istabraq won the RSA Novice Hurdle from Mighty Moss. Istabraq had to fight for it but he won and that was all that mattered. Istabraq rounded his season off with a nine length win in the Grade one Novice Hurdle at Punchestown.
The 1997/98 season saw Isatbraq take his first four races of the season including the Grade one Hattons Grace and the Irish Champion Hurdle. I had been backing Istabraq for the Champion hurdle since Christmas. I could not see him being beaten. Amazingly Istabraq started 3/1 fav on the day. I backed him again. Istabraq was bidding for a tenth straight win. What followed in the Champion Hurdle was the annihilation of a Champion hurdle field not seen for many a day. Istabraq moved to the front three out before he accelerated rounding the home turn. The Champion Hurdle then became a procession in the home straight, as Istabraq won by 12 lengths from Theatreworld. It was an amazing performance staggering. Istabraq tasted defeat on bottomless ground at Aintree to Pridwell under an inspired Tony McCoy to end Istabraq's 10 race winning streak. This was Istabraq's last race of the season.
The 1998/99 season followed a very similar path. Istabraq won his first four races including the Grade one Hattons Grace and the Irish Champion Hurdle. In his fifth race of the season, he started the 1999 Champion Hurdle as favourite. Istabraq won by 3 1⁄2 lengths from Theatreworld to win his second Champion Hurdle at 4/9 hardly breaking a sweat. In the next race, Istabraq beat French Holly in the Grade one Aintree Hurdle. Istabraq won his last race of the season at the Punchestown festival taking the Grade one Punchestown Champion Hurdle. Istabraq had been odds on for every race in the season. The world kept spinning and Istabraq kept on winning. There was no flags and teeshirts with "Istabraq The Immortal " blazed across the front of them.
The 1999/2000 season Istabraq had his first start of the season in October at Tipperary in the John James McManus Memorial Hurdle. Istabraq beat Limestone Lad by 7 lengths. There was a rematch for Istabraq's second start of the season in the Grade one Hattons Grace Hurdle at Fairyhouse. This time Istabraq came second losing by 5 1⁄2 lengths to Limestone Lad also in soft conditions. I was in Fairyhouse that day I was gutted. Istabraq bounced back winning at Leopardstown at Christmas he then took the Irish Champion Hurdle as he liked. Despite the loss at Fairyhouse, Istabraq started the 2000 Champion Hurdle as favourite. He won by 4 lengths from Hors La Loi III, there had also been a scare the morning of the race with Istabraq having had blood in his nostril. This victory was Istabraq's fourth straight win at the Cheltenham Festival and he bolted up. This was his last race of the season.
The 2000/2001 season Istabraq made his reappearance at Leopardstown for the December Festival Hurdle. Istabraq battled with Moscow Flyer before he fell at the last. This was the first time Istabraq fell. I was at Leopardstown Istabraq got a dreadful fall. I feared the worst for a few minutes. On his next start, Istabraq won but this time Moscow Flyer fell. it was in the Irish Champion Hurdle. the end of January Istabraq was the odds on ante-post favourite for the 2001 Champion Hurdle. However, before the 2001 Cheltenham Festival, cases of Foot And Mout Disease started to appear in Britain. The festival was therefore abandoned. This was dreadful luck on Istabraq denying him a chance at a fifth Cheltenham Festival Victory and a fourth Champion hurdle. In Istabraq's next start, Istabraq again fell at the final flight, with Moscow Flyer the winner. This race was the Punchestown Champion Hurdle run at Leopardstown due to track issues. Istabraq and Moscow Flyer never finished a race together so we never got to find out who would have won.
The 2001/2002 season. Istabraq reappeared to defeat Bust Out by a head in the December Festival Hurdle at Leopardstown. In the 2002 Champion Hurdle Istabraq was the favourite of the 15 runners. However, Charlie Swan pulled him up after 2 hurdles. The race was won by Hors La Loi III. I was in Cheltenham like many others hoping for the fairytale. It was a sad way for such a brilliant career to finish. The crowd burst into applause. It was a wonderful, emotional moment.
Istabraq had everything a champion should have. A wonderful owner in JP McManus, a wonderful trainer in Aidan O'Brien and a brilliant jockey in Charlie Swan. As regards a racehorse Istabraq had everything, pace, determination, a really strong traveller, an electric turn of foot, a really quick jump. Istabraq also had the heart of a lion and would never chuck it in during a battle. I don't think I will ever see a hurdler like Istabraq again. As the late Brendan Grace said " Istabraq we'll cheer you home"