Imperial Commander leads the 'little cheapies'


He has pieced together the old champion, and might yet find a new one from an emerging group of novices. But all such long-term cycles are sustained by daily routine, which made it comforting to find Nigel Twiston-Davies so familiar in both aspect and outlook yesterday morning. With the Festival now just a fortnight away, he stood in his cherished duffle coat and watched his Cheltenham team cantering out of a drizzly Cotswold hollow, before assessing their prospects with his trademark aggrieved optimism.

Assessing a marketplace dominated by barely a handful of powerful rivals, the only current trainer to saddle two Grand National winners reiterated his status, nowadays, as underdog. "We haven't the firepower to take them on at the sales," he said. "So it's nice when my little cheapies can do the job. It is hard work – but also more satisfying. This is as strong a Cheltenham team as we've had for a bit, really. Must be. We've got Imperial Commander back, and some very nice young horses."

Twiston-Davies had more than once come close to abandoning the struggle before winning three races on the final afternoon of the 2010 Festival – including the Gold Cup. In the process, Imperial Commander redressed what his trainer had considered a culpable obsession with Kauto Star and Denman, both stabled with Paul Nicholls. Though that pair have been retired, Imperial Commander will be returning up the road to Prestbury to represent the golden era.

He managed just two starts the following season, and resurfaced only last month, beaten half a length in the Argento Chase at the Cheltenham Trials meeting. An unsparing critic would describe that as no more than satisfactory, as Imperial Commander has always gone best fresh and was favoured by the conditions.

Twiston-Davies is more positive. "It was an astonishingly good run," he insisted. "If you'd offered me that beforehand, I'd definitely have taken it. He'd had such a bad run up to it, fracturing a splint bone, and though he'd done lots of swimming, there's no substitute for cantering – and he'd only done four weeks of that. I couldn't be more pleased with him since, and now just want to take him somewhere for a racecourse gallop this weekend."

Twiston-Davies was no more downhearted by a first defeat over hurdles, on the same card, for The New One. Run out by a neck, after leading before the last, he remains among the favourites for the Neptune Investments Hurdle. "He does have this huge burst of speed," Twiston-Davies said.

Another pair of novices, African Gold and Master Of The Sea, will each be looking to crown their improvement with a fifth consecutive success, in the Albert Bartlett and Coral Cup respectively. "African Gold will be even better with the extra distance and nicer ground," Twiston-Davies said. "He's a big strong horse and I hope he can be another Imperial Commander type for us. Master Of The Sea has been a revelation, we haven't got to the bottom of him, either. I didn't think we'd have at all a good season, but they've excelled themselves. The build-up to Cheltenham wasn't any fun, when Imperial Commander was favourite. In a way, things could only go wrong. But the less that's expected, the better you can do."

Peter Chapple-Hyam, who trained Authorized and Dr Devious to win the Derby, must face a British Horseracing Authority inquiry after being charged with misleading an investigator and refusing to supply full and true phone records. No date has been set for the hearing.

Turf Account

Chris McGrath's Nap: Gandalfe (3.30 Leicester)

Few miles on the clock and a solid last run confirms he should be more than equal to this kind of mark, especially with his stable in decent form.

Next best: Makethemostofnow (3.20 Catterick)

Back to form in a fair race the other day and remains entitled to further progress.

One to watch: His debut run for the stable at Warwick on Friday suggests Ballynagour (David Pipe) will be one of the best-backed horses at the Festival – once his target is confirmed.

Where the money's going: Cape Tribulation is 20-1 from 33-1 with Ladbrokes for the Cheltenham Gold Cup.