There was welcome positive news for the racing faithful yesterday, in the form of a sparkling workout in the morning sunshine at Warwick by the Cheltenham Gold Cup favourite Imperial Commander. It was the first racecourse sighting of the reigning Cheltenham king since he won at Haydock in November, a victory achieved at the cost of a gashed foreleg.
The powerful dark bay 10-year-old, trained by Nigel Twiston-Davies, seemed on good terms with himself as he galloped two miles round the undulating track, kept honest by two younger stablemates. The break in home routine of an away-day spin blows mental as well as physical cobwebs away; he will have another such at Kempton on Saturday week before the defence of his crown next month.
His injury meant he missed the midwinter championship, the King George VI Chase, but Twiston-Davies is confident that the gelding will once again see off all-comers at Cheltenham. "That was his first serious piece of work since he's been back in full training," he said, "and it went very well. One more like it should put him spot-on for the Gold Cup. The cut on his leg has been healed a while now and he's raring to go. All we have to do is get him there in one piece and it will take a good one to beat him."
Imperial Commander is generally 7-2 for a Festival repeat, followed in the lists by the King George winner Long Run, Denman, Kauto Star and Diamond Harry, at prices from 6-1 to 10-1. Next in the market are Saturday's Leopardstown winner Kempes and Kauto Star and Denman's young Paul Nicholls stablemate Pride of Dulcote, whose pretensions to Grade One class over fences are due to be examined on Saturday in the Ascot Chase.
Another of Twiston-Davies's inmates, last year's Champion Hurdle runner-up Khyber Kim, will try his luck again in the two-mile crown four weeks today, rather than having a tilt at the longer World Hurdle. The Irish raider Sizing Europe will also stay at the minimum trip, but over fences; he has been scratched from the Gold Cup and Ryanair Chase in favour of the Queen Mother Champion Chase.
Saturday's Newbury meeting, abandoned after the deaths of two horses from suspected electrocution, has been rearranged for Friday. The course has been given the all-clear and a seven-race card will include the Aon Chase, Game Spirit Chase and Totesport Trophy.
* Chris McGrath's Nap
Union Island (4.00 Folkestone)
Improved on a tame first hurdles effort to score on soft ground at Plumpton last month and can continue his progression for today's step up in distance.
Mighty Magnus (2.10 Newcastle)
Changed stables this term and can gain compensation for his fall, while still travelling strongly against some of today's rivals, at the same track two weeks ago.
* Where the money's going
West End Rocker is now 11-2 favourite with Totesport for Saturday's Grand National Trial at Haydock, after yesterday's defection of former market leaders Ballabriggs and Synchronised.