There was some welcome and much needed positive news for the racing faithful yesterday, in the form of a sparkling workout in the morning sunshine at Warwick by the Cheltenham Gold Cup favourite Imperial Commander.
It was the first racecourse sighting of the reigning Cheltenham king since he won at Haydock in November, a victory achieved at the cost of a gashed foreleg.
The powerful dark bay 10-year-old, trained by Nigel Twiston-Davies, seemed on good terms with himself as he galloped two miles round the undulating track, kept honest by two younger stablemates.
The break in home routine of an away-day spin blows mental as well as physical cobwebs away and he will have another such run at Kempton on Saturday week before the defence of his crown next month.
His injury meant he missed the midwinter championship, the King George VI Chase, but Twiston-Davies is confident that the gelding will once again see off all-comers when he gets to Cheltenham.
“That was his first serious piece of work since he's been back in full training and it went very well,” he said.
“One more like it should put him spot-on for the Gold Cup.
“The cut on his leg has been healed a while now and he's raring to go. All we have to do is get him there in one piece and it will take a good one to beat him.”
Imperial Commander is generally 7-2 for a Festival repeat, followed in the lists by the King George winner Long Run, Denman, Kauto Star and Diamond Harry, at prices ranging from 6-1 to 10-1.
Next in the market are Saturday's Leopardstown winner Kempes and Kauto Star and Denman's young Paul Nicholls stablemate Pride of Dulcote, whose pretensions to Grade One class over fences are due to be examined on Saturday in the Ascot Chase.
Another of Twiston-Davies' inmates, last year's Champion Hurdle runner-up Khyber Kim, will try his luck again in the two-mile crown four weeks today, rather than having a tilt at the longer World Hurdle.
Meanwhile Mac Aeda opened his account over timber with a wide-margin win in yesterday’s Valentine's Day Novices' Hurdle at Catterick.
Donald McCain's Eighteen Carat attempted to make all of the running, but the combination of the extended three miles and one furlong and a penalty for winning at Aintree took its toll in the long home straight as the jolly stretched clear to win by 18 lengths.