Horses To Follow » Imperial Commander


No prizes for originality, but it really was difficult not to be taken with Imperial Commander’s performance in landing the Paddy Power Gold Cup at Cheltenham on Saturday. Everything about the performance smacked of quality. He had the pace to easily lie up with the leaders in the early stages, he travelled really well through the race, he jumped accurately, he had no difficulty taking it up and racing on his own from fully six fences out, he quickened around the home turn, it appeared that he quickened again after the last fence, and he stayed on really well up the hill all the way to the line.

Dig deeper, and it gets even better. The form of the race looks solid. All the evidence that we have suggests that runner-up Barbers Shop is high class, he was trained for the race and he was really well fancied by a stable that is in top form and that knows the time of day. He did everything right through the race, he jumped well, he was always in the perfect position, he was delivered at the right time, and yet Imperial Commander beat him well, probably with a fair bit more in hand than the two-and-a-half-length winning margin, with the pair of them clear of the third horse Private Be. Okay, so favourite Silverburn did not aid his cause by going down on his nose at the first and again at the second last, but it is highly unlikely that he would have finished better than third even with a clear round. Also, the time of the race was exceptional, by far the fastest comparative time on the day and almost 0.5secs/furlong faster than the Racing Post’s par. And the scary thing is that there is almost certainly more to come from Imperial Commander.

I remember when Imperial Commander made his racecourse debut in the bumper at the Cheltenham October meeting in 2006. Even then, he looked like an old-fashioned staying chaser in the making, yet judging by the market it wasn’t a surprise to connections that he won that race, beating last season’s Supreme Novices’ Hurdle third, Snap Tie, into second place. He was something of an under-achiever over hurdles, winning just once, but he was only biding his time over the smaller obstacles and he won his first two chases last season impressively – albeit both in small fields – before disappointing on his final run of the season in December behind Joe Lively. Trainer Nigel Twiston-Davies determined that he was suffering from growing pains, and decided to put him away and bring him back for Saturday’s race.

So where next? Anywhere, is the answer. The sky is the limit. As well as giving an indication of his ability, Saturday’s race also told us that Imperial Commander can race over fences in a big field, which we didn’t know before Saturday. I was surprised when Twiston-Davies said that he would skip the Hennessy. He would have carried a 5lb penalty in the Hennessy instead of the extra 13lb by which he has been raised by the handicapper, and he would have been a 9/4 or 5/2 shot on the day. That said, it is encouraging that the trainer is intent on allowing him more time to recover from his exertions last Saturday, and intending to bring him back to Cheltenham for the Boylesports Gold Cup on December 13th. That race is also the intended target for Barbers Shop, who has been raised 8lb. Can Nicky Henderson’s horse gain his revenge on 5lb better terms? It’s possible. He is only six and at least as progressive as Imperial Commander. The betting on that contest will be interesting.

But it is probable that we will not see the best of Imperial Commander until he steps up in trip. He looks like a staying chaser and he is bred for stamina, by Flemensfirth out of a Le Moss mare. He is an interesting entry in the King George. That could be a really hot race this year, with Kauto Star, Tidal Bay and Voy Por Ustedes all probables for it at this stage, but best odds of 20/1 about Imperial Commander are still interesting. However, the 33/1 that is available about him now for the Gold Cup is even more interesting.

The top of the Gold Cup market is looking decidedly porous at present. Imperial Commander has to improve by about two stone on official ratings if he is to win a Gold Cup, but that is more than possible given how progressive his profile is. He will be only eight years old next March and he has raced over fences just four times now. There is every chance that he will improve further for stepping up in distance, yet we know that he has gears, and he is three for four over fences at Cheltenham. He is almost certain to run in the race if his trainer thinks that he is up to winning it – there is unlikely to be the much-touted Ryanair option unless he is a definite non-stayer by then – and he looks well over-priced now at 33/1.

© The Irish Field, 19th November, 2008