In September 2013, shortly after Australia had quickened clear to win the ICON Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf Trial Stakes at Leopardstown by 6 lengths, Aidan O’Brien said, “Everyone probably knows we always thought he was the best horse we’ve ever had”. However, when interviewed in March 2014, O’Brien said, “He is the second-best horse I have ever trained and the best was not a Flat horse.” The horse to which he was referring, of course, was triple Champion Hurdle winner Istabraq.

 

Istabraq, a beautifully bred son of Sadler’s Wells out of Betty’s Secret, by Secretariat, was originally owned by Sheikh Hamdan Al Maktoum and trained, on the Flat, by John Gosden in Newmarket. However, he was sold to John Gosden’s former assistant, John Durkan, acting on behalf of John Patrick ‘J.P.’ McManus, for 38,000 guineas at the Tattersalls Sales in 1995.

 

The intention was that Istabraq, whom Durkan already knew well, was to become his stable star at Green Lodge stables, formerly occupied by Harry Thomson “Tom” Jones, when the young trainer set out on his own. John Durkan recognised Istabraq’s potential as a hurdler very early on and, in 1996, prophetically told J.P. McManus, ‘He will win next year’s Sun Alliance Hurdle.’

 

Sadly, the original plan was never to come to fruition because, shortly afterwards, John Durkan was diagnosed with leukaemia. He made arrangements for Istabraq to join up-and-coming trainer Aidan O’Brien in Ireland on the understanding that the colt would be returned to him once he had recovered sufficiently to commence his own training career.

 

Istabraq duly made his hurdling debut in a run-of-the-mill novices’ hurdle at Punchestown in November, 1996, in which jockey Charlie Swan was instructed to make sure the gelding enjoyed himself. Starting 6/4 second favourite – the one and only occasion during his hurdling career that he didn’t start favourite – Istabraq went down by a head to the odds-on favourite, Noble Thyne, despite making a mistake at the final flight.

 

The experience evidently did Istabraq a power of good, because he won his next ten hurdle races in a row, including the 1997 Royal Sun Alliance Novices’ Hurdle, as John Durkan had predicted, and the 1998 Smurfit Champion Hurdle. The latter victory was made all the more poignant by the death of John Durkan in January, 1998.

 

J.P. McManus recalled, “Istabraq’s first Champion Hurdle was very special. John Durkan had just passed away and Carol was working with us. I remember speaking to John after Istabraq had won the Sun Alliance the previous year, I was in the winner’s enclosure, he was in New York in Sloan-Kettering Hospital, he was so happy, so overjoyed, and then the next year he wasn’t there. It was quite an emotional time. It seemed to be more than just a horse race.”

 

Following his final piece of work in preparation for the Champion Hurdle, Aidan O’Brien had told Charlie Swan, to his surprise, that Istabraq would “destroy them”. Of course, O’Brien was right; starting 3/1 favourite, Istabraq led three out and sauntered clear to win ‘very easily’ by 12 lengths from Theatreworld.

 

All in all, Istabraq ran in 29 hurdle races, falling twice – coincidentally, in the AIB Agri-business December Festival Hurdle at Leopardstown two years running, in 2000 and 2001 – and being pulled up in the Smurfit Champion Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival in 2002 on his final racecourse appearance. In 26 completed starts, he was beaten just three times, once on his hurdling debut at Punchestown in 1996 and twice over 2 miles 4 furlongs on soft going at Aintree and Fairyhouse in 1999.

 

He won 14 times at Grade 1 level, including the Royal Sun Alliance Novices’ Hurdle in 1997 and the Smurfit Champion Hurdle in 1998, 1999 and 2000. In his entire hurdling career, he started at odds-against just six times and, as Aidan O’Brien put it, “was a class above everything he raced against”.

 

Arkle was one of the most successful Irish Thoroughbred horses ever produced by Emerald Isle. Owned by Anne Grosvenor, Duchess of Westminster, and trained by Tom Dreaper, Arkle posted a 27-2-3 record in 35 race starts. Jockey Pat Taaffe often partnered with Arkle. Taaffe rode the horse in 28 races and was atop Arkle in 26 chase outings. Twenty-four of those races ended in success for both Arkle and Taaffe.

The jockey was instrumental in Arkle’s wins at Cheltenham, a venue that saw the pair win four times – 1963,1964, 1965 and 1966. Three of Arkle’s wins at Cheltenham came in the Gold Cup. It wasn’t just at Cheltenham where Arkle ruled. He won twice at the Hennessy Gold Cup, once at the Irish Grand National and twice at the Leopardstown Chase.

Arkle has been rated as the best chaser of all-time, according to Timeform. Arkle’s rating of 212 tops the list of all-time great race horses. The 2018 Gold Cup winner, Native River, has a Timeform rating of 172, which pales in comparison to Arkle’s figure.

Arkle’s greatest success and 22 of his 26 steeplechase wins came in a short timeframe. The horse ran to glory in a four-year period from 1962 to 1966. He was the most dominant horse of his generation, and according to the Guardian newspaper, handicapping had to be altered to account for the horse’s ability to beat all other competitors.
His success of the 1960s helped Arkle become one of the most popular sporting figures of the decade. In a time when horse racing was on par with football, boxing and other games, and millions of sports fans followed it each year. Arkle was on top of the world.

An Irish national hero, Arkle died in 1970 and his skeleton can be seen in a County Kildare, Ireland museum today.

Best Mate died in 2005 during the William Hill Haldon Gold Cup. The horse died of a suspected heart attack and fans who witnessed the event were moved to tears. Best Mate was one of the most beloved horses of his generation.

Much of that love was due to the Irish horses three Cheltenham Gold Cup wins. Best Mate won the Gold Cup in three consecutive years – 2002, 2003 and 2004. Best Mate’s unbelievable form and treble of Gold Cup wins matched Arkle’s record set in the 1960s. Best Mate’s consecutive Gold Cup wins made him the first horse to accomplish the feat since 1970 and 1971 when L’Escargot did it.

Best Mate was trained by Henrietta Knight and earned over £1m in winnings. The horse recorded a 14-7-0 record in 22 starts and remarkably never fell at a hurdle. Best Mate won numerous award during his career including the British Horse Racing Board’s Jump Horse of the Year.

Best Mate’s death came just weeks after a failed attempt to win his fourth consecutive Gold Cup. Best Mate had broken a blood vessel and it contributed to his inability to when the race. The race in Exeter that saw Best Mate’s untimely demise was expected to be his return to the top of the sport. Unfortunately, it was the venue for his death.
One reason for Best Mate’s popularity was due to the amount of money he had helped raise for charity.

The horse’s death didn’t just hit horse racing fans hard, but it also affected Knight and the trainer’s inner circle. The horse was called the best horse they could have ever had. In truth, Best Mate was the just that, a horse that won races and touched the lives of those who worked with him.