A champion hurdle runner-up contests the race run in Best Mate's memory at Exeter today – but a rather more substantial legacy was evident as the holder of the trophy he won three times came bounding up a hill in the Cotswolds yesterday. Imperial Commander, stepping up preparations for his reappearance at Haydock next month, will have only two more races this season after the Betfair Chase. And his trainer, Nigel Twiston-Davies, admitted that he must stifle his usual instincts to meet the example set by Henrietta Knight with Best Mate.
As tends to be the case, Twiston-Davies is having a prolific autumn. Fifty winners already leave him behind only Evan Williams in the nascent trainers' table. When they are in this kind of form, his horses seem so tough and aggressive they might have been hewn from the quarry adjacent to the yard. It is a different story, however, for the very best of them. Khyber Kim's comeback has been delayed until Kempton at Christmas, after which he will go straight to the Stan James Champion Hurdle. And Imperial Commander has dead aim on just three big days: 20 November, 26 December and 18 March.
True, he took precisely the same route when winning the Totesport Cheltenham Gold Cup last season. But he was then turned out at Aintree less than three weeks later, already spent when unseating at the 14th – confirming an overall pattern that suggests he is best fresh. And Twiston-Davies, with his strategy clear, reckons Imperial Commander "will definitely be more forward" for the Betfair Chase than when just failing to beat Kauto Star last year.
"We've made a conscious effort," the trainer said. "He was far from fit for it last year. And we've mapped out this programme of only three runs, so we'll make sure he's ready for the first one. It worked for Best Mate. I love to run them. But Liverpool was a disaster, and very much my idea. I did feel huge pressure, because everyone said I was a dick to go, and it didn't work out."
Twiston-Davies was hosting one of those media open mornings that broaden the reach of his description for one of the first up the gallop, old Ollie Magern: "As enthusiastic as ever, and mad as a hatter." Once again he drove his guests maybe 200 yards in a double-decker, the odd stirrup cup being spilled as the old bus bounced and rattled and belched along. And once again Twiston-Davies had a considered verdict on some of the theories still proposed for Imperial Commander, for instance that he should not return to Kempton on Boxing Day, after two previous failures, because he does not handle right-handed tracks.
"Absolute, total bollocks," Twiston-Davies declared. "Two years ago he came back with a lung infection, and even then he had been the only one to take the race to Kauto Star. And last year he got blinded at the second fence, and ran a superb race even to finish where he did, having got so far back."
Among those who now share that view is the stable jockey, Paddy Brennan, who once felt Imperial Commander was better left-handed. "But then I rode him round Kempton three weeks before the Gold Cup," he said. "He gave me a feel like no horse I've ridden. If you look back, there has always been a reason when he hasn't run well."
Regardless, the two men have sufficient confidence in each other to remain quite relaxed about disagreeing in public. Brennan, for instance, suspects that a hard race at Haydock contributed to his latest defeat at Kempton. "That's why Kauto Star is so good," he said. "Because it would be something for any horse to get over the sort of race they had at Haydock. Imperial Commander is more like Denman, likes to be fresh."
Now Imperial Commander has proved himself a match for both rivals. "Kauto Star and Denman are amazing horses," Twiston-Davies said. "But this time they're the ones who have questions to answer." Not that he has himself enjoyed many palpable dividends, in terms of new patronage. "You don't tend to get many new owners," Twiston-Davies said. "But your existing ones might think you a bit less of a prat."
Knight has a rather bleaker perspective, Best Mate's owner having since started to send horses to Paul Nicholls instead. The champion trainer is odds-on to win the chase sponsored by Jim Lewis at Exeter with Celestial Halo, almost certainly the most accomplished hurdler he has ever sent over fences.
Chris McGrath's Nap
Di Stefano (4.30 Lingfield)
Has only ever won a maiden but was placed three times in Listed company last season, and handicap rating has since collapsed by 21lb. Pontefract fourth represented immediate promise on his debut for David Nicholls.
Sukhothai (3.50 Yarmouth)
No Frankel, this Warren Place filly, but has a good pedigree and showed glimpses of ability in qualifying for a very modest rating. Was entitled to need the run last time and switch to turf and extra furlong could prompt improvement.
One to watch
Final Verse (Tor Sturgis) is in the veteran stage now, but made a promising start for his latest yard at Lingfield last week. Very well treated on the form of his younger days.
Where the money's going
Casamento is 2-1 favourite with Totesport for the Racing Post Trophy at Doncaster on Saturday, with another Irish raider, Dunboyne Express, 100-30.Reuse content