Commander steeled for historic fight

Gold Cup winner chases follow-up success as Festival aces return to fray at Aintree
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It will drive Nigel Twiston-Davies nuts, but there it is. The man who saddled the last three winners at the Cheltenham Festival brings them all to the opening day of the John Smith's Grand National meeting – and will be greeted, unabashed, by the same sceptics he imagines to have been finally silenced by the Gold Cup success of Imperial Commander.

Twiston-Davies has long been exasperated by theories about various robotic proclivities in his champion. But while his performance in the Gold Cup definitively ended any doubts about his stamina, it also reinforced the suspicion that Imperial Commander is best after a break.

His trainer was always adamant that the horse had needed the run every bit as much as Kauto Star when they shared a photo on their reappearance at Haydock. And immediately after the Gold Cup he described his next assignment – in the Totesport Bowl today – as a "penalty-kick".

But you don't win Gold Cups without giving yourself a hard race, and Imperial Commander has had just 20 days to recover. Regardless of any issues specific to the horse, moreover, history stands bleakly against him. Thirty of the past 35 Gold Cup winners to have run again the same spring failed on their next start. And the two horses whose hegemony Imperial Commander broke at Cheltenham, Denman and Kauto Star, were beaten at short odds for this prize after finishing second in the two previous Gold Cups.

So it is that their conqueror faces just four rivals but can still be backed at only a shade under even money. What A Friend, whose owners include Sir Alex Ferguson, has been artfully kept fresh specifically to exploit any lingering hangover in the Gold Cup horses; and this sharp, flat circuit plays ideally to the strengths of Nacarat, who duly sat out Cheltenham as well.

Even Twiston-Davies admits that it can be hard to read how much a race has taken out of a horse. "But he was pricking his ears going to the last, and was going away up the hill, without being murdered," he says. "I'm not worried by the track, either. Haydock nowadays is exactly the same as Aintree, and he ran all right there, didn't he?"

The bottom line is that while Imperial Commander (3.10) is far and away the best in the field, it would take about two seconds to excuse any failure to prove as much today. The odds take ample account of this, however, making it a chance just about worth taking.

Another Cheltenham champion, Big Buck's (2.00), demonstrated last year that he had no problem replicating his own Festival form at this meeting and another lap of honour beckons in the opener. Ruby Walsh and Paul Nicholls bring another impressive Festival winner to the Matalan Anniversary Hurdle in Sanctuaire (2.35), who certainly had an easier race laughing off his handicap rating than did Barizan in his heart-breaking bid from the front in the Triumph Hurdle.

Twiston-Davies and his son, Sam, celebrated Imperial Commander's Gold Cup by promptly winning the big hunter chase with Baby Run. It is easy to picture this bold animal taking to the National fences, but the photographs have already been taken of Trust Fund (3.45) in this same race, last year. He will have needed his comeback spin behind Baby Run at Cheltenham – and, whisper it softly, the winner certainly gave himself a hard race that day. Funnily enough, father and son could conceivably combine to thwart the stable's third Cheltenham winner, Pigeon Island, as Nikola (4.20) shaped nicely enough after an absence that day.

Twiston-Davies is likely to have five or six runners in the big one on Saturday, but as a jockey another previous winner, Timmy Murphy, had to choose between two possible mounts. Yesterday he finally resolved to leave The Package, a young, progressive horse, to Graham Lee and stay loyal to Comply Or Die, the horse with Aintree runs on the board but a corresponding weight.

After Saturday, the agenda switches to a series of Classic trials. But there is a danger that potentially the most significant will slip under many radars today when Special Duty, favourite for the Stan James 1,000 Guineas, limbers up in the Prix Imprudence at Maisons-Laffitte – just about the time Big Buck's should be pulling up at Aintree.

Turf account: Chris McGrath


Somersby (4.55 Aintree) Must soak up a generous effort at Cheltenham, but had a very light campaign overall and confirmed himself a top-class chaser in the making when all but running down Sizing Europe in the Arkle. This extra distance should hasten his journey to the top.

Next best

Wishfull Thinking (5.30 Aintree) Traded his inexperience for a lenient handicap mark at Cheltenham and was unlucky to pay for it, falling two out when still going strongly. The silver lining is that he has another chance off the same rating here.

One to watch

Dazzling Light (J S Goldie) Has come down the weights and hinted that she will soon take advantage at Musselburgh on Sunday, set a lot to do but getting herself involved smoothly before lack of fitness told.

Where the money's going

Carruthers is 12-1 from 16-1 with the sponsors for the Totesport Bowl at Aintree today.