Gold Cup, Imperial Commander assessment, with exclusive quote from syndicate head, Ian Robinson

Though the Festival seems to arrive more quickly each year, memories can be very short, especially when a horse has accomplished the ‘unexpected’ .  The 2010 Tote Gold Cup was hyped by ‘racing’ as the Big Showdown between Kauto Star and Denman – all else was ignored.  Kauto and Denman merchandise was produced, (well, racing’s version of merchandise – a few scarves), press releases were issued, the pair’s owners and trainer were recruited  to champion their cause and had the horses been able to talk, I’m sure we’d have seen them on TV slagging each other off and offering to ‘settle it here and now with a gallop down the High St jumping over cars’.

Anyway, Fate is seldom more flighty than when it goes racing and, utterly predictably, it dealt the sport a crushing kick in the PR department in the shape of a big shiny bay gelding called Imperial Commander who jumped  and galloped the Big Two into the Cotswold turf – literally in the case of Kauto Star who took a heavy fall at the fourth last.

Imperial Commander  started third favourite at 15/2.  I didn’t back him, excusing my poor judgement by arguing that he was a tailor-made 21 furlong Cheltenham horse.  That 2m 5f trip at Cheltenham tends to throw up the occasional true specialist like Dublin Flyer.  Imperial Commander had won five times  over that distance at the track, including the 2009 Ryanair, a race that looked his for the taking again in 2010.  I had serious doubts that a horse with such a convincing record at that distance (21 furlong races are comparatively rare; those at Cheltenham demand an unusual blend of speed, jumping prowess and stamina) would have enough left to see out the extra half mile of the Gold Cup.

But his owners, the Our Friends in the North syndicate, took the view that one Ryanair trophy on the sideboard was enough and they might not get another chance at the glory pot – the Gold Cup.  A word here for the syndicate head Ian Robinson, a Geordie businessman now living in a hamlet near Carlisle.  In my view, Ian did more for racing than all the PR hype surrounding the Big Two, by posting regularly on the Betfair forum.

Unlike many owners, Ian Robinson knows a lot about horses, and will talk for hours about their physiology.  On Mastermind, his specialist subject would be The Breathing Apparatus of the Thoroughbred.   Like all his equine  purchases (over 90% of them have won), Imperial Commander was bought because Ian had researched the hell out of his bloodline looking for breathing weaknesses in the Commander’s ancestors. Anyway, doubtless Ian will write his own book on that some day.

For the past three years or so Ian has been remarkably open and honest in his posts on the Betfair ante-post and Cheltenham forums – handling daft questions and silly attacks with dignity, grace and humour.  He tipped Imperial Commander to  win the Paddy Power in 2009 – what kind of cert was he that day with 10 stone 6lbs? From then on he kept all his readers updated on the wellbeing and chances of IC and his other horses. A non-word-mincer, he made clear his serious concerns about running the horse at Aintree after his Gold Cup win “I’d much rather he was munching grass in an Irish field”.

But his ever-optimistic trainer Nigel Twiston Davies reported IC ‘bouncing’ at home and Our Friends in the North let the big horse take his chance . The Mildmay track at Aintree (a completely different layout from the Grand National Course) does not suit long-striding gallopers like Imperial Commander and Denman, who took a horrible fall in the race in 2009. IC fared little better than Denman, cobbling together a poor round of jumping, terminated by catapulting Paddy Brennan into orbit over Liverpool after hitting  the sixth from home.

Still, the horse came back safe and Ian Robinson and his Friends learned another lesson.  You can be pretty sure Imperial Commander won’t be seen again on the tight Mildmay Course though I think he’d be fascinating contender in the John Smiths Grand National.

On March 18th, Imperial Commander will go to Cheltenham with a scar on the tendon of his near-fore (front left leg).  Hopefully the wound sealed by the scar tissue won’t cost the big horse his second Gold Cup. The injury was the result of an over-reach (when a horse’s rear foot catches a front foot in a scissor action during a race and the aluminium shoe cuts the flesh) in his first race of the season, the Betfair Chase at Haydock.

He won that day despite the deep cut and the pudding-like ground, but he has not raced since.  He missed the King George VI Chase, possibly a blessing in disguise, as Kempton is almost as tight as Aintree’s Mildmay and I think Imperial Commander can get flustered going right-handed (galloping clockwise), though Ian Robinson believes that theory unproven.

On the positive side, Imperial Commander has shown his best form when fresh and well rested. He is unbeaten at Cheltenham, has won two Grade One races there and, although ten-years-old, he has relatively few  miles on his ‘clock’. Prone to the occasional jumping error elsewhere, he has been almost flawless at Cheltenham.  Given the focus on Denman and Kauto last year, Imperial Commander almost certainly did not get the credit he deserved for pulverizing Denman with a display of fine fencing, tactical speed, stamina, determination and sheer power.

Perhaps the most telling aspect of Imperial Commander ‘s 2010 victory was the horse he beat into second.  2008 Gold Cup winner Denman, a noted warrior who usually grinds opponents into submission with his relentless gallop and never-say-die attitude, fought a prolonged battle with Imperial Commander throughout the second circuit, only to see Imperial Commander steadily pull away in the straight and win by seven lengths.

A repeat of that performance will, I think, see the big horse retain his Gold Cup, a feat achieved by only six horses since the first running in 1924.

What others say about Imperial Commander

Trainer Nigel Twiston-Davies  

“On his first racecourse gallop at Warwick, (returning after the serious cut he suffered in the Betfair ‘chase), he worked with a young horse of mine called Oscar Magic.  Paddy was less than impressed but he didn’t know at the time that much about Oscar Magic who is a smart Bumper horse who could have a big chance in the Champion Bumper.

Paddy was much more impressed after the Kempton gallop and came back with a big smile..  I genuinely couldn’t be happier with him.  I have studied his Gold Cup rivals, and there isn’t one I have in our sights.

It’s more exciting when you do something you’re not supposed to (talking about winning last year), If he’d finished third nobody would have said anything, but if he finishes third this year I’ll have a lot of explaining to do. But he won’t finish third, he’ll win.”

Ian Robinson, head of the Our Friends in the North Syndicate, owners of IC  said today:

“It has been a different preparation as we didn’t have the King George as a springboard. His layoff after the Betfair left us with a standing rather than a running start, which is why it was unfair to criticise his efforts at Warwick. The horse that he worked with at Warwick (Oscar Magic) was ready to run and scooted up in a Sandown bumper a few days later, whereas he was still work in progress. The key point was always the Kempton gallop and Paddy said he felt as good as last year, if he produces the same performance as last year that will be good enough. Since then he has really come into himself, looks a picture and is doing everything and more that is asked of him. He will have a couple of schooling sessions but other than that we are counting the days”

Ruby Walsh

“Paddy Brennan is a pessimist and even he is bullish – you’ve got to take that into account. I’d love Kauto to win as I think he’s the best horse ever, but Imperial Commander is the one to beat”

6 replies »

  1. “A repeat of that performance will, I think, see the big horse retain his Gold Cup, a rare feat, achieved just twice since the first running in 1924”

    Easter Hero
    Golden Miller
    Cottage Rake
    Arkle
    L’Escargot
    Best Mate

    • Succinct & correct, Jeremy, thanks. Don’t know where the hell I came up with that – must be doing too much blogging lately: I will edit accordingly.

      All the best

      Joe

  2. Without wishing to appear pedantic, I think twelve times is correct as follows:

    Easter Hero
    Golden Miller (4 times)
    Cottage Rake (twice)
    Arkle (twice)
    L’Escargot
    Best Mate (twice)

    Jeremy Kimber

    • Not at all, Jeremy, I’m much in favour of pedantry and grateful for your comments. I should have researched the piece more throughly in the first place. I’ve made a ‘compromise’ change now, and would be very happy to get further feedback from you on anything I post.

      Best wishes

      Joe

  3. Hi Steeplechasing!

    How do you see Tidal Bay’s chances in relation to Imperial Commander- surely wherever the favourite is he can’t be far behind? Do you agree or just think that Tidal is just another one of the numerous ew shouts in this years’ Gold Cup.

    cheers
    Rico

    • Hello Rico,

      Poor old Tidal Bay. If he were human and had a good QC, he’d have won a dozen defamation cases against his detractors, although many people have a soft spot for him, and I’m one of them. For a ‘villain’ he’s been pretty consistent: Jumps placings 22/111221/111211/122345/24174-322.

      Not out of the first two in his first 17 NH outings. He’s won at least once each season in all bar his first season and only been out of the first 4 twice in his life. he’s won two Grade 1s and two Grade 2s (three of these Graded victories at Cheltenham) His racing style, with that high head carriage, makes me think something is hurting him. Owner Graham Wylie had his back checked last season and they believed they’d found, and fixed, the problem, but, a bit like the old pop group Status Quo, he still keeps turning out the same old performances, his version of the 12 bar blues for supporters.

      When he finally pops his platinum plates, I wouldn’t be surprised if an autopsy found some physical defect which will leave racing fans swooning and reflecting ‘if only’. One of the best hurdlers of the ’70s, Birds Nest, used to get called all sorts of names because he’d swerve badly across the course near the finish when under maximum pressure. When he died, they opened him up and found he had a serious heart defect.

      I doubt Tidal Bay will win the Gold Cup but I’ll bet the roof comes off the stand if he does. Unfortunately, I don’t think his form with Imperial Commander at Haydock can be taken literally. I had the good fortune to speak to Ian Robinson last night – Ian heads the syndicate that owns Imperial Commander – and he told me that, not only did IC suffer a serious cut during the Betfair ‘chase, they found out later that when they thought they’d had him 90% fit for the race, he was just 75% to 80% fit.

      The romantic in me would love to see Tidal Bay blunder his way round in his usual fashion, trade at 999 on Betfair two out, and storm up the hill to win by a nose in a four-way photo-finish. I don’t think he will but with old TB, you never, ever know.

      Good luck if you’ve backed him.

      Joe

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