Horses To Follow » Imperial Commander

Imperial Commander

I wouldn’t go losing faith in Imperial Commander as a Cheltenham prospect just yet, despite an ostensibly disappointing run in the King George Chase at Kempton on St Stephen’s Day. One of the main question marks over the Nigel Twiston-Davies-trained gelding going into the race was whether or not he was going to be able to reproduce his run in the Betfair Chase, when he got to within a whisker of Kauto Star, going right-handed. He had under-performed on both of his attempts at right-handed tracks, once in the 2008 King George and once at Punchestown last April. The other question mark was whether he was going to be able to overcome the dip in form that the Twiston-Davies horses often experience at this time of year, evidence of which was just beginning to filter through in the latter weeks of December. In truth, we never got to find out the answer to either. Imperial Commander made a terrible mistake at the second fence, and was fighting a losing battle thereafter. He actually did get himself into contention, but he really didn’t jump with any fluency – that may have been a right-handed thing, or it may have been down to the effect that the mistake had on his confidence – and he trailed in in fifth place, over 60 lengths behind Kauto Star.

It would be stretching it to say that he would have even got close to Kauto Star on the day even if he had put in a clear round. Paul Nicholls’s horse put up a rating that made him the joint third best steeplechaser ever, according to Timeform, behind only Arkle and Flyingbolt. The Racing Post Rating awarded to him for this performance of 192 was 7lb higher than anything he had ever achieved before, and the official handicapper raised him to a mark of 195, 9lb higher than his best previous official rating. This is once-in-a-generation stuff.

The Gold Cup is looking like a match now between the Ditcheat Duo, but Imperial Commander may not be as far behind them as the betting suggests, and he is clear of the remainder at this stage in my book at present. He had the pace to win the Ryanair Chase last season, putting an all-important Cheltenham Festival victory on the board, and he proved that he stayed three miles at least with his run in the Betfair Chase, getting to within a whisker of Kauto Star.

It may be sacrilegious to suggest that something that isn’t Kauto Star or Denman can win the Gold Cup this year, but no 10-year-old has won the race since 1998, and they are both bound to be over-bet, such is the hype that is going with them. Imperial Commander is only nine, he has run in just nine chases in his life and he could be still improving as a staying chaser. He is almost certainly a better horse going left-handed than he is going right, and he is definitely a better horse at Cheltenham than he is anywhere else. He has 21lb to find with Kauto Star on official ratings, but I am not certain about that hype-fuelled and hype-inducing 9lb hike. His Topspeed figure in the King George this year, based on his performance on the clock, was actually 1lb inferior to the Topspeed figure that he clocked in winning the race in 2007, and only 1lb superior to the performance that Imperial Commander put up at Haydock. Also, is it really reasonable to expect that a near-10-year-old running in his 33rd race can improve 9lb on anything that he has done before? Nigel Twiston-Davies says that he will train Imperial Commander for the Gold Cup now, and the 20/1 that you can get about him for the race is more than fair. Even if you are not comfortable betting against the big two, with the doubts now surrounding Cooldine and Joncol the 5/1 about Imperial Commander finishing in the first three that an each-way bet gives you is generous.

26th December 2009