Seven now the magic number
Gold Cup could be set for a changing of the old guard, writes Ian McClean
Kauto Star v Denman: The Decider. Perhaps the over-riding attraction of horse racing is its never-ending capacity to surprise. So when Paddy Brennan passed the post first on Imperial Commander in the Gold Cup last March, his shhhhh! finger-to-pursed-lips gesture to the crowd was to silence the publicity machine that had reduced racing's most prestigious steeplechase to a two-horse race.
Of course we were hoodwinked there. However, the neglected horse then is the celebrated horse now and the reigning champion -- fresh from his impressive seasonal reappearance at Haydock last week -- spearheads the Gold Cup market to retain his crown back at Prestbury Park next March.
Multiple winners of the Gold Cup aren't exactly rare, with four horses (Golden Miller, Arkle, Cottage Rake and Best Mate) having won the race at least three times while L'Escargot, Easter Hero and Kauto Star have all won twice. The question is whether Imperial Commander has what it takes to join the elite (and justify his present favourite market position) or whether he will be consigned to history's majority which failed in their bid to add to their single triumph.
Cotswolds trainer Nigel Twiston-Davies is adamant his Gold Cup winner has improved this season which is hardly inconceivable considering his May-foaled nine-year-old has had just 18 starts in his life to date. Certainly his performance in last Saturday's Betfair Chase didn't signal a decline and given that he is scheduled to run only once more before March's blue riband -- in Kempton's King George -- it is evident the trainer is taking every measure to maximise Imperial Commander's chance of performing a famous encore.
By the time March rolls around, he will be 10 years old. There have been 17 double-figure age winners through the history of the Gold Cup but recent evidence suggests the sands of time are against the current incumbent as he aims to become the oldest winner of the race since Cool Dawn in 1998. In the 11 renewals (2001 abandoned) since Robert Alner's charge got the better of Dorans Pride and Strong Promise, 10-year-olds have been sent off favourite on four occasions.
See More Business headed the field in 2000 following his victory in 1999 but could finish only fourth at the age of 10, beaten six lengths behind Looks Like Trouble. Noel Chance's Looks Like Trouble, by turn, was made favourite for the 2002 running -- again as a 10-year-old -- but he was dismounted after walking over the line over a distance behind young pretender Best Mate.
There were only a handful of realistic veterans challenging for honours until Beef Or Salmon emerged as market leader in 2006 -- again aged 10 -- but Michael Hourigan's multiple Grade One winner always harboured a particular aversion to Cheltenham and trailed home a distant 11th behind War Of Attrition.
Denman and Kauto Star then traded Gold Cups until last year when 10-year-old Kauto Star again headed the market as defending champion and odds-on favourite but, like See More Business and Looks Like Trouble before him, the task proved beyond him as he was struggling in fifth when crashing out four from home.
Kauto had been impressive 12 months earlier, as had See More Business and Looks Like Trouble, but all three came up short in their defence. Imperial Commander looked invincible as he powered away from Denman last March but, perhaps even more daunting than any of his chief protagonists, he will have Old Father Time snapping at his heels come March 2011.
That said, he will still be feeling the flush of youth compared to his two main current market adversaries Kauto Star and Denman which will both be an over-ripe 11 come Gold Cup day. We have to go back to Mandarin in 1962 to find the last 11-year-old to win the Cheltenham prize.
It certainly feels as if the door is ajar for a changing of the old guard. A look back over the list of multiple winners gives a clue as to what to look out for in the new regime. More than 50% of those which won the Gold Cup more than once did so for the first time at the age of seven -- L'Escargot, Best Mate, Kauto Star and of course Arkle. And that doesn't include the anomaly that was Golden Miller which began his reign of five consecutive wins when he was just five.
So if seven is the magic number for 2011 try these three for Gold Cup size -- Somersby, Burton Port and (now this would be fascinating) Mikael d'Haguenet. Hmmm.