Twiston-Davies between Rock and hard place
A year ago, those helping him perform a similar service on behalf of his local racecourse included the champion steeplechaser, his stable jockey, and a long-serving right-hand man. Yesterday, when Nigel Twiston-Davies again volunteered his time and facilities to promote the first big meeting of the jumps season, none of these three stalwarts was anywhere to be seen.
Imperial Commander is recuperating from a tendon injury, in a field somewhere in Northern Ireland. Paddy Brennan has been riding freelance since the spring, his four-year tenure at the yard having been undermined by the precocious emergence of his employer's own son, Sam. And Fergal O'Brien, after 19 years here, now features among the competition after taking stables on the other side of the Cotswolds.
Moreover, as Twiston-Davies candidly admits, his team is "way down in strength and numbers". With rain clouds rolling out of the valley below, it was hard to resist a melancholy sense of abandonment. Having returned defiantly from far more perilous brinks in his time, however, it would be perfectly in character for Twiston-Davies to use three days at Cheltenham this weekend to reiterate his stature as long-standing local hero.
"In terms of personnel, there's not a problem," he said breezily. "Fergal was one of two head lads, and the other one's still here. And it's nice to have a young jockey [in Sam] who's doing brilliantly. But not having Imperial Commander definitely is a problem – a huge one. He was travelling better than ever when he broke a blood vessel in the Gold Cup, and had beaten Denman far more easily than Long Run did."
Imperial Commander has relatively few miles on the clock for a horse of his age, but Twiston-Davies none the less acknowledges a need for fresh blood. It would be a terrific tonic, then, if the only current trainer to have won the Paddy Power Gold Cup three times could make it four on Saturday.
He could hardly be better aware of its demands. Unlike Imperial Commander, Long Run could not start his Gold Cup campaign with a win here last year, instead having to settle for a podium finish behind Little Josh and young Sam. "That was an inspired ride," Twiston-Davies said. "To go off in front like that and throw him at every fence, I don't think too many jockeys would have won on that horse."
Twiston-Davies accepts that the profile of Billy Magern and Swincombe Rock for now remains closer to that of Little Josh than Imperial Commander. "But they're both second-season novices, which seems to work a treat," he said. "Perhaps the handicapper hasn't got hold of those horses yet, though it's a shame these two look like being a few pounds out of the weights. Billy Magern had a really good dress rehearsal over the course last month, and Swincombe Rock will improve a lot for his first run."
Twiston-Davies identified Viking Blond, who recently made a taking start over fences at Chepstow, as his best chance of the meeting. "He jumped superbly and the softer the better," he said.
Sadly, Little Josh will not be seen until the new year, while Khyber Kim is also sidelined. Likewise their trainer's younger son, Willy. "But he's only 16 and has time on his side," Twiston-Davies said. "He hopes to be back for the Hennessy. Luck will change. It always does."
Twiston-Davies would not be alone among trainers envying Donald McCain after Peddlers Cross made an immaculate chasing debut at Bangor yesterday. Against just two rivals, however, it amounted to little more than a schooling session for the Champion Hurdle runner-up. Albeit he exhibited natural technique, a rather more substantial test awaits the likes of Cue Card, Al Ferof and Menorah in the novice chase sponsored by this newspaper at Cheltenham on Sunday.
Chris McGrath's Nap
Monsieur Jamie (2.50 Southwell) Has already won three times over course and distance during a light career to date, and entitled to further progress after returning from a break last time.
Backfromthecongo (2.00 Ludlow) Ultimately well beaten on his return, but will last longer with the freshness out of him and may well have been primed for this by his in-form local yard.
One to watch
Jigsaw Puzzle (Warren Greatrex) looked a smart prospect when accelerating clear on his debut in a bumper at Bangor yesterday.
Where the money's going
Support continues to snowball for Mon Parrain in the Paddy Power Gold Cup at Cheltenham on Saturday, now 7-2 from 4-1 with the sponsors.
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