Defending a crown generally brings more pressure than challenging for one, so both relief and pleasure washed round Haydock's winner's circle yesterday after the Cheltenham Gold Cup winner, Imperial Commander, opened his season with an authoritative success in the Betfair Chase. The nine-year-old, ridden by Paddy Brennan, took control of the three-mile contest after the first circuit and, though tiring on the testing ground in the closing stages, held Tidal Bay's late flourish by a length and a quarter.
A year previously, Imperial Commander had lost the Grade One prize by a whisker to the then-reigning Cheltenham champion Kauto Star. "We were the ones there to be shot at this time," said his trainer, Nigel Twiston-Davies. "I couldn't be happier with the way things went. He was fit, but not hyper-fit; there's only so much you can do at home."
A foot-perfect Imperial Commander, who erased the memories of last season's post-Cheltenham fall at Aintree, had a collection of smart rivals in trouble as he increased his tempo turning into the home straight, allowing Brennan the luxury of repeated glances behind.
"He was getting high enough over the first few fences but once he found his confidence he was very good," said the rider. "He really turned it on in the straight and showed me what he had. I just tried to nurse him home – it was very deep ground out there – and although the other horse [Tidal Bay] flew at him at the end, mine had a bit left pulling up."
The next assignment for Imperial Commander will be the King George VI Chase at Kempton on Boxing Day, for which he has been shortened in the betting to 5-1 but for which the four-time winner Kauto Star is awarm favourite.
As Commander stamped his authority at Haydock, so did Master at Ascot. The Paul Nicholls-trained Master Minded, running for the first time since he lost his two-mile title at Cheltenham, scored a wide-margin success in the Amlin 1965 Chase. And though he was left clear by Albertas Run's crashing fall three out, he was just beginning to better his rival in their duel at the head of the field.
Master Minded, ridden for the first time by Noel Fehily, jumped quite beautifully for his new partner, who is the one being blown good by the ill wind that removed injured Ruby Walsh from the game. Nicholls has yet to confirm Walsh's replacement on Kauto Star at Kempton but dropped a fairly broad hint by saying: "Noel hasn't done himself any harm today, has he? There's a lot of pressure ridingthese high-profile horses and he's doing a great job."
Fehily rode two more winners for Nicholls at Ascot, the rising hurdling star Silviniaco Conti, who took his record to five for five, and the chaserWoolcombe Folly. The stable instigated a four-timer with an effortless success by the novice hurdler Toubab at Haydock.
Tony McCoy limped feelingly away from his fall from Albertas Run, his third crash of the afternoon, and gave up his remaining rides, nursing a bruised, but not broken, shin.