But no-one told the horse that he was last year's model, and yesterday he jumped and galloped like the champion he once was to beat Dorans Pride in the John Durkan Memorial Punchestown Chase. The King George VI Chase at Kempton on Boxing Day is expected to be his next assignment, and he is now as short as 12-1 to become the first horse in National Hunt history to regain the Gold Cup.
There were just one and a half lengths between Imperial Call and Dorans Pride at the line yesterday, but taking the race as a whole, the difference between them was rather more apparent. While the former champion's fencing was fast and accurate, Dorans Pride made a series of mistakes, and he only closed on Imperial Call when Paul Carberry, the winner's jockey, was confident that victory was already his.
"I was happy to let him bowl along at a sensible pace and he was getting lengths at his fences," Carberry said. "I didn't want to make too much use of him in holding ground but I'm very happy with the way he did it."
The only question in anyone's mind afterwards was whether Bob Treacy, a 25-1 outsider, might have beaten them both but for a bad mistake at the final fence, and his unexpected presence at the finish certainly seems to have coloured the Tote's judgement of the form.
The Gold Cup's sponsors will still lay 20-1 about Imperial Call winning the race again next year, which is almost twice the price of Dorans Pride, who is generally a 12-1 chance.
Richard Dunwoody, Dorans Pride's jockey, yesterday, reported that "he made a mistake at the last fence first time round and it took him an awful long time to get going again. Jumping out of that ground doesn't help my horse."
The Irish, of course, still believe that they have something even better at home. Florida Pearl, who will not see a racecourse until the Ericsson Chase at Leopardstown in three weeks' time, is Ladbrokes' 7-2 favourite (from 4-1) for the Gold Cup.
The Ericsson Chase is also a possible target for Imperial Call, but Kempton's Boxing Day meeting is the first choice for Raymond Hurley, who took charge of his preparation when Fergie Sutherland, his former trainer, retired.
"The King George would be my preference," he said, "although we won't be making plans until we see how quickly he recovers in the next few days." Sarah Lane, speaking on behalf of Imperial Call's owners, confirmed that "if he's in good form and there's a cut in the ground, we would be very tempted."
Last year's King George winner, See More Business, is also on course for Kempton after his defeat of Dom Samourai in the Rehearsal Chase at Chepstow on Saturday, although he too would benefit from easy ground.
"He's the sort of horse who improves for a run or two and he is bound to improve from yesterday," Paul Nicholls, his trainer, said yesterday. "But it all depends on the ground on the day. If it is good to firm he might not even go to Kempton." Not surprisingly, the Ericsson Chase would be the obvious alternative.
Dom Samourai, meanwhile, will return to Chepstow on 28 December and attempt to improve Martin Pipe's already outstanding record in the Welsh National. Pipe has already won the race five times, although it is five years since Riverside Boy provided him with his most recent success.
"I was very pleased with the way he ran yesterday and the plan is to run in the Welsh National as that looks the right sort of race for him," Pipe said yesterday, which explains why Coral will offer you just 5-1 against him this morning.
GOLD CUP BETTING
C H L T
Florida Pearl 4-1 4-1 7-2 9-2
See More Business 8-1 7-1 8-1 7-1
Cyfor Malta 10-1 10-1 7-1 11-1
Dorans Pride 12-1 12-1 12-1 14-1
Suny Bay 12-1 12-1 10-1 14-1
Teeton Mill 14-1 14-1 14-1 16-1
Imperial Call 12-1 14-1 12-1 20-1
Unsinkable Boxer 20-1 14-1 14-1 14-1
Escartefigue 14-1 14-1 25-1 14-1
Cheltenham, 18 March 1999
Each-way, a quarter the odds, places 1, 2, 3
C Coral, H William Hill, L Ladbrokes, T Tote
Nap: Opera Buff
NB: Course Doctor