Commander out to lead fightback

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A tight finish up the hill at Towcester is seldom a pretty sight, not least in testing ground, but to his trainer the dour success of Kilvergan Boy on Sunday was exemplary in both manner and timing. Nigel Twiston-Davies had previously saddled only one winner since the end of November, and knew that he would be entering some of the best horses in his care for Saturday's big meeting at Cheltenham. Kilvergan Boy dug deep, won narrowly, and if he did not quite lift the siege, at least he showed the mettle needed to see out one of those ghastly runs that periodically afflict any trainer.

The stable's sterile midwinter could hardly be in greater contrast with its form back in the autumn. Much to his exasperation, however, Twiston-Davies finds each trend just as unaccountable as the other. He has turned his horses inside out during recent weeks, to the point that loose change rattles into the drains, but by every available measure they have seemed every bit as healthy as they were back in November.

That was when Imperial Commander produced such a brilliant performance in a valuable handicap, again just up the road at Cheltenham, that Twiston-Davies decided to take on Kauto Star himself in his next start. In common with many others from the yard, however, Imperial Commander faded rapidly in the closing stages of the King George VI Chase at Kempton on Boxing Day – albeit not before reiterating the impression that he belonged at that level, still travelling strongly leaving the back straight. Moreover, the horse he beat at Cheltenham, Barbers Shop, had in the meantime entered calculations for the Totesport Cheltenham Gold Cup with an arresting performance at Sandown.

Twiston-Davies would be able to measure where he stands by running Imperial Commander against Barbers Shop in the Letheby & Christopher Chase on Saturday, a race that may well identify the most feasible Gold Cup alternative to Denman and Kauto Star. In the circumstances, however, he instead sounds disposed to go for a valuable handicap on the same card.

"At one stage at Kempton he was the only one giving the winner a race," Twiston-Davies said yesterday. "But then he dropped out. The thing is that we've no particular reason to expect anything different this time, because he seemed fine then as well. I haven't seen the entries for the two races yet, but being sensible you would probably want to be looking at the handicap – that's what he won round there before."

Twiston-Davies was resisting any temptation to suspend operations after Christmas, but was then left with no choice by the weather. He acknowledges that this might yet prove a blessing in disguise, but for now views that win on Sunday as the one swallow that does not make a summer. "The timing was good, very much so," he said. "But nothing's changed, we've done nothing different, and suddenly we have a winner. Well, we did change the bedding, and the hay, all that sort of thing. But nothing really came out of it, and we're still in the dark. They've all been fine, so we just keep trying."

His Cotswold rival, Jonjo O'Neill, has entered Exotic Dancer and Albertas Run, who both excelled over Christmas, the former finally making his Grade One breakthrough in the Lexus Chase and the latter finishing second to Kauto Star at Kempton. But Exotic Dancer is owned by Sir Robert Ogden, who may instead be represented by Star De Mohaison – stabled alongside Kauto Star and Denman in Ditcheat.

There are a number of other Festival trials on the card. Punchestowns, who has emerged as the season's outstanding staying hurdler, is being aimed at the Byrne Group Cleeve Hurdle, while Diamond Harry's status as the top novice hurdler in Britain could be examined in the opener.

Win, lose or draw, he is already a considerable feather in the cap of Nick Williams. Another trainer who once had a similarly small yard in the West Country will meanwhile have his record-breaking achievements honoured by the latest bauble added to the Festival. Yesterday Cheltenham unveiled the Martin Pipe Conditional Jockeys' Handicap Hurdle, to be run on the final day of the meeting. Purists may view this as a further dilution of quality at the Festival – but punters will doubtless comfort themselves with the certainty that Pipe and his son, David, will already have identified their best possible candidate for the race.

LETHEBY & CHRISTOPHER CHASE (Cheltenham, Saturday)

Ladbrokes: 3-1 Star De Mohaison, 4-1 Halcon Genelardais, 5-1 Barbers Shop, Exotic Dancer, 6-1 Tidal Bay, 7-1 Nozic, 10-1 Albertas Run, 12-1 Roll Along, 14-1 Imperial Commander, 20-1 others.

*Today's meeting at Leicester has been abandoned due to waterlogging.