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
“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”
“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”