Chris McGrath: Commander's campaign combines military precision with flesh and blood frailty

Inside Track
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The Independent Online

It's just about the most familiar rebuke in the game: "They're not machines, you know." Yet punters and pundits incorrigibly persist in calibrating thoroughbreds as though they have pistons for cannon bones, and turbines for hindquarters.

In fairness, that's no worse than treating horses as congenitally unreliable. Such a glib, jaundiced view pays no regard to their capacity to replicate form fairly exactly, given a consistent environment. It's just that sometimes we have a culpable tendency to reduce all this bone and sinew – not to mention such intangibles as temperament and willpower – to a matrix of ratings and speed figures, pounds and lengths.

That's partly why Zenyatta's defeat at the Breeders' Cup, in what has now been formally confirmed as her final start, in fact taught us to appreciate her better than ever. It showed how precarious, how precious that 19-race unbeaten spree had been. Had she won – as she would have done, in another stride – we might have been deceived that winning can be an almost metronomic process.

Having said all that, the return today of a very different kind of champion shows some horses to be unusually mechanical in conforming to their own performance trends. As winner of the Totesport Cheltenham Gold Cup itself Imperial Commander lines up for the Betfair Chase at Haydock today as the epitome of athleticism, stamina and courage. But all these virtues have together created such predictable patterns in his ratings graph that it barely seems necessary to make him leave his stable in the Cotswolds to collect a six-figure prize.

Imperial Commander is practically invincible when fresh. After a break of seven weeks or more, he has won seven out of eight starts – the one exception being when unlucky not to beat Kauto Star in this race last year, rallying to force a photo after losing crucial momentum three out. He can look a very different animal without adequate recuperation, however, as when he ran so deplorably at Aintree barely three weeks after the most generous effort of his career in the Gold Cup.

It just so happens, of course, that he has found himself under the supervision of a man who has always raced his horses aggressively – and largely been vindicated in doing so. But Nigel Twiston-Davies reproaches himself mercilessly over the Aintree debacle, and has already mapped out a campaign comprising just three starts for Imperial Commander. All going well today, he will run at Kempton on Boxing Day and then be freshened up for the Festival. It's a programme that might have been devised by Henrietta Knight herself, and nowadays you won't find too many people associating themselves with the criticism she endured in nursing Best Mate to three consecutive Gold Cups.

True, successive failures at Kempton might suggest another clear trend in Imperial Commander, but that's for another day. For now it seems safe to assume that he will be so hard to beat today that a shade of odds-on looks pretty fair value. With his yard enjoying another fertile autumn, moreover, and just three targets in his sights, Twiston-Davies reckons the horse more forward than last year.

Not that he is complacent. "It makes me sick, most mornings, the pressure of training a Gold Cup winner," he admits. "And he's got such a blindingly obvious case that he has to win. He hasn't been the easiest to train – he can go very wrong – but he's in the form of his life. He can have back problems, and problems with muck in his lungs, but at the moment he's clean as a whistle, sound as a pound."

Nor will Paddy Brennan, in the saddle, be resting on any laurels after watching his employer's son, Sam, win the big race at Cheltenham last Saturday. Little Josh looked a pretty hairy under the stable jockey last winter, but his jumping has been transformed since teaming up with young Sam. That may well be a coincidence, but at the very least Twiston-Davies Snr will know that Brennan is not lacking motivation. It must be said that Brennan is handling an awkward situation with dignity. As a top-class rider who really engages with the sport and its public he is assured the good wishes of every neutral today.

What A Friend is thought the most feasible danger, having won a second Grade One chase when Imperial Commander failed to show up at Aintree. Apparently there is nothing terribly sinister about the way this horse tilts his head under the whip, but the bottom line is that he could not beat Denman getting 22lb this time last year – and Imperial Commander seemed to beat Denman on merit at Cheltenham.

Planet Of Sound opened a new horizon when tried over this trip at Punchestown last spring, but some pretty generous assumptions are required to make him competitive with Imperial Commander, and perhaps the best alternative for those wary of an odds-on favourite is instead Nacarat.

Plenty of other good horses resurface today – Master Minded and Zaynar among them, down at Ascot – and there are two valuable handicaps over the National fences at Aintree tomorrow. But Imperial Commander unmistakably bestrides the weekend, not least as he is likely to be seen only once more before Cheltenham. And if it is wrong to treat him like some kind of automaton, then at least all can agree that his engine harnesses a hell of a lot of horsepower.

Crawley rises above calamity to rescue lost cause on Lastrose

some rising stars on four legs drew attention to themselves yesterday, but none in quite such arresting fashion as Matt Crawley, a young conditional jockey who produced one of the rides of the year at Musselburgh. Aboard a mare named Lastroseofsummer, Crawley's saddle slipped as he approached the eighth hurdle and he reached the other side clinging desperately to her withers, both legs dangling over her right flank. Somehow he scrambled back aboard, and then contrived not only to bounce her back into contention, with no irons, but to lead over the last and get her home in front before finally tumbling out once past the post.

No such dramas tainted Megastar's hurdling debut at Ascot, where one minor mistake should perhaps be attributed to a very slow early pace. Though Megastar himself was among those pulling too hard, he retained ample energy to dispatch inferior rivals at the business end, surging 16 lengths clear without coming off the bridle. Totesport offered 14-1 for the Supreme Novices' Hurdle at the Festival.

Gary Moore, his trainer, was especially thrilled as Megastar had missed some work after a setback last month. "He probably hasn't beaten much but there were Flat horses in there and he showed loads of speed," Moore said. "I'd like to stay low-key for another run, and then maybe look at something like the Tolworth at Sandown."

Master Of The Hall also made a good start in a new discipline on the same card, having the novice chase already sewn up when making an inattentive blunder at the last. He is only in the first wave, however, among several promising novice chasers likely to be introduced by Nicky Henderson over the next few days. Watch out, especially, for Finian's Rainbow.

Turf Account: Chris McGrath


Red Rouble (2.15 Huntingdon) Fast-tracked to a handicap for his chasing debut and acquitted himself very well, beaten less than a length by a flourishing rival despite being hampered by a faller. Had landed a gamble over hurdles on his reappearance, and can maintain a progressive profiles.

Next Best

Munlochy Bay (1.30 Ascot) A surprise winner when fitted with cheekpieces at Cheltenham in the spring but that form worked out well and she made a promising resumption at Wetherby, without the headgear, left plenty to do after a mistake before keeping on strongly for fifth. Cheekpieces return and back up in trip.

One to watch

Quipe Me Posted (Jonjo O'Neill) is the type to come into his own over fences and has more ability than his present rating, judged on his performance at Warwick on Wednesday, making tired mistakes over the last two after moving smoothly to the front. Return to two miles could be the making of him.

Where the money's going

Zaidpour is 12-1 from 14-1 with William Hill for the Supreme Novices' Hurdle after a dazzling debut for Willie Mullins at Punchestown last weekend. Gullible Gordon and Meanus Dandy share 7-1 favouritism with the sponsors for the Totesport Becher Chase at Aintree tomorrow.