A year ago Nigel Twiston-Davies was asking himself why nobody seemed terribly interested in the third favourite for the Totesport Cheltenham Gold Cup – which was being presented, or so it seemed to him, as a match between Kauto Star and Denman.
This time, Imperial Commander returns to Cheltenham as centre of attention, and his trainer rather suspects he preferred things the way they were before. For while Twiston-Davies feels that Imperial Commander answered all possible questions, in the Gold Cup, the consensus among those visiting his stable yesterday was that many new ones have been raised in the meantime.
The horse has been confined to just one race this season, after all, at Haydock back in November. Just a fortnight short of the Festival, then, Twiston-Davies once again found himself having to stand up for his champion at his media open morning yesterday. "Last year, if Imperial Commander had finished third, that would have been as good as he was," he said. "If he finishes third this year, I'm going to have a lot of explaining to do. But he won't finish third. He'll win."
Twiston-Davies scoffed at the notion that Imperial Commander lacked gusto in a gallop round Warwick a fortnight ago, and that his work round Kempton on Saturday must duly have come as a relief – even though the author of both perceptions was the man on the horse's back. "It showed the one thing everyone should learn," Twiston-Davies said. "Something I've always believed – that you should never have jockeys ride work. Paddy [Brennan] was disappointed, because he's competitive and doesn't like getting beat, but I knew he was working with a good horse. I knew it was a superb bit of work."
In many eyes, Brennan's status as stable jockey has at least been eroded, if not actually threatened, by the precocious emergence of his employer's teenage sons, Sam and Willie. Sam, who last year landed the Foxhunters' Chase barely an hour after his father saddled the Gold Cup winner, won the bumper at Kempton on Saturday on Oscar Magic. And the same horse was promptly revealed as the one who had made Brennan so dismayed with Imperial Commander at Warwick.
The rhetoric does seem to have evolved somewhat. Yesterday Twiston-Davies suggested that everyone understood the likes of Imperial Commander and Khyber Kim to be Brennan's rides, but that thereafter it was up to the owners. If Oscar Magic is one of the stable's principal hopes for the future – and he goes for the Weatherbys Champion Bumper as a horse that "could be exceptional" – then it seems instructive that Brennan should have been riding an outsider for Tom George in the same race. In fairness, Brennan had elected to ride for George in the big race on the card, but the whole situation hardly radiates permanence.
Regardless, Imperial Commander himself proved to be alive and well, lighting up a raw, grey morning in the Cotswolds with three uphill canters. "He's absolutely bouncing," Twiston-Davies said. The horse does have a history of excelling when fresh, and the cut he sustained at Haydock apparently cleared up in time for him to have a run in the rescheduled King George VI Chase. In the event, he was not permitted to renew his original entry – "for political reasons or whatever," as Twiston-Davies mutters darkly.
The clear implication is that yet another big race had been billed as a lap of honour for Kauto Star. "We've got the best chaser in the country," Twiston-Davies reiterated. "If Imperial Commander wins again, he'll be [rated] one of the greats – and I think he deserves to be."
He is exasperated by suggestions that the horse is just a track specialist, or that age might soon catch up with him. "I think statistics are fools [sic]," he said. "He started out very late. It just depends on the miles on the clock. And there's no young whippersnapper out there that really frightens me. He wins a lot at Cheltenham because he runs there most. I suppose the track might inconvenience one or two others, though. He does jump well over the ups and downs, and I don't know how comfortable Long Run or Diamond Harry will be away from Newbury or Kempton."
Needless to say, he views Khyber Kim – runner-up last year – as "the forgotten horse" in the Stan James Champion Hurdle. His lungs were "full of muck" after he disappointed at Kempton in January, but Twiston-Davies is looking forward to astounding everyone "when he wins".
And that, clearly, is how he feels most comfortable. As he always stresses, his patrons cannot compete with those of Nicky Henderson and Paul Nicholls. Little wonder, then, if he feels a little "apprehensive" about his Gold Cup billing this time. "It's more exciting to go there as underdog than as top dog," he said. "It's more exciting when you are doing something you're not supposed to do."
Chris McGrath's Nap
Barrie Burn (4.20 Bangor) Has been learning the ropes over shorter trips, but entitled to major improvement for this radical step up in distance on handicap debut. McCoy takes over.
Serious Drinking (7.40 Kempton) Running up a perilous sequence of excuses but surely capable of winning off this mark, having done well to manage third on her last visit off a steady pace.
One to watch
Epsom Salts (Pat Phelan) showed the benefit of a recent comeback spin at Lingfield yesterday, going well but short of room and switched before regrouping for third.
Where the money's going
Champion Court is 12-1 from 16-1 with Totesport for the Albert Bartlett Novices' Hurdle at Cheltenham.