Denise Sheasby part owner of Imperial Commander looks back at the epic 2009 encounter and what was to become a career defining moment for the son of Fleminsfirth; the greatest ever Betfair Chase?
Imperial had flourished following injury and all concerned looked forward to the 2008/09 season with anticipation, could we possibly win the Paddy Power Gold Cup off 10-10? A question that has a very obvious answer now, with a two-and-three-quarter length victory over the Royal runner Barbers Shop.
Abandonment of the Cheltenham December meeting meant that a second Gold Cup would not grace the mantelpiece, so a tilt at the King George on Boxing Day became the choice. How good was he? What race should we target at the Festival? Nigel had him entered in both the Ryanair and the Blue Riband event, so his run at Kempton would have a major influence on the final decision.
Trainer Nigel Twiston-Davies and jockey Paddy Brennan were convinced that he would stay three miles but would he stay the three and a quarter miles of the Cheltenham Gold Cup?
The Kempton run would prove to be a real disappointment as would all attempts to go right handed; hindsight is a wonderful thing! The view following the race was to head for the Ryanair Chase and Imperial duly obliged with a stunning two-length victory over Voy Por Ustedes.
The 2009 Betfair Chase would be run on heavy going. The pundits, the bookmakers and some of the owners thought that the three mile test would prove to be too much for Imperial. Although always running well following a break, but we couldn’t beat the immortal Kauto Star, could we?
In an intriguing race, it was Paddy who made the first move, taking up the running some way out, using the horses class to stretch the field. Turning into the straight it was just Kauto that was left, we had a ray of hope; as Ruby Walsh had just had to push his charge to ask him to close, but close he did and the writing seemed to be on the wall.
Kauto looked to be travelling the better of the two and a magnificent jump took him a two lengths clear at the second last he was obviously going to win. However he didn’t get away from Imperial, approaching the last in fact the gap had diminished. Paddy kept pushing and on the run in he started to close, bit by bit in a truly pulsating finish, which only three mile chases can deliver.
In a real head-bobber both horses went past together, with Ruby giving Paddy a slap on the back after the line, had Imperial outstayed Kauto and got back up in the shadow of the winning post?
For all of the Imperial connections the answer was in the negative, but you could not in any way be disappointed. They say that no one remembers who finishes second, not in this case and certainly not for me. A career defining run for a fragile horse that was handled with real skill by his trainer.
Imperial went on to fulfil his destiny by winning the 2010 Cheltenham Gold Cup in the “decider” defeating the great Denman, a race in which Kauto unfortunately fell. A truly unforgettable experience for all concerned. A “dream beyond a dream.” He also went on to lift the 2010 Betfair Chase, but it is the 2009 race that still to this day sends a shiver up my spine.
Imperial Commander bowed out of National Hunt Racing in 2013 after a glittering seven year career. In a golden era of staying chasers he consistently mixed with the best and beat the best. It takes a special horse to win at two Cheltenham Festivals and he was certainly that.
Big Race Wins
November 2008 – Paddy Power Gold Cup Handicap Grade 3 (Cheltenham)
March 2009 – Ryanair Chase Grade 1 (Cheltenham)
March 2010 – Cheltenham Gold Cup Grade 1 (Cheltenham)
November 2010 – Betfair Chase Grade 1 (Haydock)
Image credit: Denise Finney