Cheltenham: Imperial good enough to take Command just like last time
In a year when there are more questions than answers about some of the leading totesport Cheltenham Gold Cup contenders, perhaps it is best to err on the side of caution and stick to a small wager on reigning champion Imperial Commander.
Yes, there are certainly questions about his fitness having been sidelined since November, but trainer Nigel Twiston-Davies has been most positive about his wellbeing in recent days and his form is there for all to see. #The 10-year-old ended Paul Nicholls' stranglehold on the race when hammering Denman by seven lengths last year and while his Betfair Chase victory on his reappearance at Haydock was merely satisfactory, he could do little more than win.
However, he suffered a cut to his leg in that length-and-a-quarter defeat of Tidal Bay which makes his victory a touch more meritorious but also means he has not raced since.
Twiston-Davies did not expect him to be ready for the King George on Boxing Day and when that race was delayed by three weeks the trainer was keen to run, but rules prevented him from adding the horse to the race.
The Naunton handler subsequently decided not to risk Imperial Commander in any minor events and head straight to the Festival with a couple of racecourse gallops along the way.
Such a preparation is probably not ideal but Twiston-Davies is an experienced trainer and he is sure to have his star firing on all cylinders.
While his general demeanour has to be taken on trust, Imperial Commander is some way ahead of his rivals on the ratings and should be a similar distance in front come the finish.
The careers of Kauto Star — winner of the Down Royal Festival’s JNwine.com Champion Chase in November — and Denman would both appear to be on the wain now so Kempes, with Tony McCoy on board, is taken to offer most resistance to Imperial Commander, while Tidal Bay will be running on for minor honours.
Zarkandar may not be the Nicholls' first string judged on jockey bookings but he holds an excellent chance in the JCB Triumph Hurdle.
A winner on the level in France for Alain de Royer-Dupre, the four-year-old is a half-brother to all-conquering filly Zarkava.
Zarkandar made a dream start over obstacles when landing the Adonis Hurdle at Kempton on his British bow, a path also followed by last year's Triumph hero Soldatino. Zarkandar should have little trouble with the stiffer track here as he stayed nearly two miles in France, and while the hurly-burly of this race is an unknown factor, this Azamour colt is worth a shot.
Ski Sunday came close to Festival glory two years ago but he can go all the way this time in the Vincent O'Brien County Handicap Hurdle.