A race that defied expectation yet delivered something special; Lee Mottershead on a Gold Cup of high drama that went to a thoroughly admirable horse and a potent trainer and jockey team.
IT WAS not the race we expected. In many ways, it was better. It was brutal, frightening and, at times, uncomfortable to watch, but most of all, it was a reaffirmation that we love this sport and this meeting for the fact that we can never, not even when at our most confident and convinced, force upon it our wishes and expectations. The Cheltenham Festival, and the Gold Cup, more than any of its races, rules its disciples and participants, not the other way around.
Nothing about this most astonishing of Gold Cups was predictable. It was evident beforehand, and hammered home to all who would listen afterwards, that Nigel Twiston-Davies and Paddy Brennan believed Imperial Commander capable of victory, but not they, nor anyone, could have foreseen a chain of events that had the packed grandstands reacting vocally with oohs, aahs and gasps to each and every fence jumped. And crucially, this was a Gold Cup in which that old chestnut - if you don''t jump, you don't win - was brought bubbling furiously back to the front of our minds.
At the seventh fence, Kauto Star, surprisingly at that early stage in front of Denman, put in an enormous leap. At the eighth fence, he thought about doing the same only to change his mind and paddle through the obstacle. The damage, aside from a loss of track position, was not immediately obvious, but as the field embarked on the second circuit, it was.
Try as he might, Ruby Walsh was unable to persuade Kauto to take hold of the bridle, so much so that the jockey had already used his whip before the fourth-last fence. But for a very great blessing, the fence could have claimed the life of the greatest steeplechaser since Arkle. This was an horrific, grotesque fall. As Kauto's neck twisted beneath his athletic, susceptible body, we held our breath. Then he rose to his feet, we breathed again and turned our eyes to an unscripted head-to-head.
Many of us had voiced the fear that the Hennessy might have bottomed Denman. There were even thoughts, largely unspoken, that his effort in this 'decider' could end far, far worse than badly.
Those concerns proved groundless as Denman, although not the remorseless, irresistible machine we saw here two years ago, once again drained every last drop of energy from his mighty frame. Yet his all was not enough. For although it has been said on many occasions that Cheltenham is made for Denman, it was chiselled, carved and sculpted to its very last inch for Imperial Commander.
It was while working at Cheltenham's opening October fixture in 2006 that I first saw Imperial Commander, falling for him hook, line and sinker there and then. Following the eight-length debut success of "a big, rangy and imposing individual", the Racing Post analysis noted: "We have seen few more exciting horses win a bumper in recent seasons." That assessment, it transpires, did an injustice to Imperial Commander.
BUT the 2010 Gold Cup winner has not got here on his own. He is the product of a pairing so perfectly matched as to be plucked from the pages of a Mills and Boon novel. There is no trainerjockey relationship in this sport as strong as that which bonds Twiston-Davies and Brennan.
A season spent with Howard Johnson was a "lonely" one for Brennan, who, long before leaving County Durham, had yearned for a move to the land of The Hollow Bottom.
"Like all good birds, he approached me," recalled Twiston-Davies, who says Brennan gives his team "backbone". In return, Twiston-Davies has offered Brennan loyalty, commitment and a peace of mind that had hitherto been elusive.
"I am not an easy person to work with," admitted Brennan. "If I'm not winning, I'm not happy. Nigel makes me happy every day. He makes me feel the best. I need to be happy. I need to be content. I'm very proud to be part of the team at Nigel's because he's a great boss and a great friend."
They are chalk and cheese.
When times are hard, Brennan can succumb to self-interrogation. In similar circumstances, Twiston-Davies goes down the pub. Yet both are consummate professionals, outstanding in their fields and fully aware of what a good horse looks like.
For that reason, it has plainly irked them - perhaps Brennan most - that the Ditcheat duo dominated the Gold Cup build-up. They felt, rightly as it turned out, that pundits had overlooked Imperial Commander's Betfair Chase near-dead heat with Kauto Star. "I'm the forgotten man," said Twiston-Davies, "and I hope you'll all forget me again after today."
We won't. Nor will we forget this day. We hacks will not forget watching Twiston-Davies, still ensconced in the press conference tent, willing home son Sam in the Foxhunter.
"There's nobody can see a stride like Sam - that's why Paddy's worried," observed the proud father, but Paddy had already said his goodbyes and headed back to the weighing room and its sauna, where he sweated off the half-pound that enabled his mate and boss's Pigeon Island to win off 10st 1lb in the concluding Grand Annual. Dedication such as that deserves the results it delivered.
Not that this was a day that delivered the results we anticipated. For Paul Nicholls, who came here smelling a fourth consecutive Gold Cup triumph, it was a wretched afternoon whose thrilling story left him stunned and shellshocked. But for all that, he will want to return and, on a sure-to-be-special Friday in March, 2011, we can look forward to Kauto Star and Denman renewing rivalry with a thoroughly splendid Gold Cup winner, a horse who, like his trainer and jockey, is of the very highest order.
Let's do it all again next year.
Trainer Nigel Twiston-Davies gives groom Jo Collinson a hug after Imperial Commander's Gold Cup victory, the first of three winners for the stable on the final day of the festival
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|Publication:||The Racing Post (London, England)|
|Date:||Mar 20, 2010|
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