16 November 2008

Full fitness with a big chaser first time out is a special trick. No one does it better than Nigel Twiston-Davies. No horse ever showed it finer than Imperial Commander in the Paddy Power Gold Cup.

Imperial Commander has not run since December last year, when his impressive start over fences ground to a halt with a disappointing fourth of four over Cheltenham’s three-mile track. Twiston-Davies diagnosed “growing pains”, put the horse away and reasoned that if he was as good as he thought a weight of only 10st 7lb gave him a major chance even in this most competitive of handicaps. He was right.

This is a horse worthy of his name. He strode into the paddock beforehand in the sort of condition that other equines could only envy. He was big, long, powerful and carried such a slab of hardened stomach muscle behind the girth that if you did not know how fit Twiston-Davies gets his horse thundering up that steep hill of his at Naunton, near Stow-on-the-Wold, you might have doubted his readiness.

The sight of Imperial Commander and Paddy Brennan sailing off for the start gave you hope. The way they coasted close to the pace-setting Yes Sir gave you confidence and when they took control before the top of the hill, there was something little short of certainty. At Cheltenham that is a very dangerous word. But when you  have a big horse who tackles his fences with such a mixture of power and athleticism, he dares you to deserve it.

Others came forward to attack but foundered. Yes Sir crashed out four fences out. Il Duce’s effort finished down the hill. Favourite Silverburn had been nursed back from a first-fence blunder only to repeat the error two from home. As Imperial Commander swept to the final turn there was one set of silks closing. And they belonged to the Queen.

Her Majesty’s first winner was a share (with her mother) in the chaser Monaveen in a little race at Fontwell in 1949. Since then her racing attention has been on the Flat, in which she takes at least three horses into this winter with real hopes for next season’s Classics. But as Barbers Shop lunged after Imperial Commander it looked for a moment as if the royal wait might end here.

Twiston-Davies claimed afterwards that he was worried that his horse might weaken for lack of fitness, but few others shared his concerns. Least of all steeplechasing statisticians who will tell you that for jumpers returning to run over 2½ miles or further after a break of at least 250 days, there is no one to equal the man who saddled Imperial Commander. Barbers Shop and Barry Geraghty did not care about statistics. They just could not get a bite at the big horse, who ran with such relentless power up that final uphill furlong.

“He jumps, he gallops, he’s everything,” said a delighted Twiston Davird afterwards. “Let’s hope we can keep him sound and keep going. He’s entered in the Hennessy and the King George. If he finishes like that over 2½ miles on his first run, you have to think he is going to stay any distance.”

We should be careful of getting ahead of ourselves and we should remember that Imperial Commander was only two pounds above the bottom weight yesterday. But he has an excitement, you could even say a “happiness” about him; and that description comes from his jockey.

With Twiston-Davies, Brennan is now fulfilling the limitless potential he has shown from early days with Paul Nicholls and Philip Hobbs before a successful but foreshortened stint with the volatile Howard Johnson up north. Brennan and his current trainer had also won the second race with Ballyfitz to take his own score to 51 for the season.

“There is no secret to the actual training,” said Brennan, now a tall and commanding figure in his own right, “but there really is a feeling of happiness in the yard. Fit and happy, that’s the best of combinations.”

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