Words and pictures by Sara Waterson
The anticipation before this Gold Cup – unprecedented in recent years – reached a crescendo as a sustained media frenzy stoked the rivalry between the two previous Gold Cup winners trained by Paul Nicholls at Ditcheat. Some shrewd commercialism saw many racegoers sporting flags, badges and scarves in the colours of their heroes, and for all the hype (and the betting!) you would have thought it was a two-horse race, but Kauto a near certainty to follow up his 2009 victory. Kauto Star and Denman however were sadly unable to follow the script! Such is the glorious uncertainty of racing.
The race nevertheless proved not just a roller-coaster but a real thriller, with Imperial Commander running out an emphatic and a worthy winner over Denman – thereby revenging his 'defeat' by Kauto Star earlier in the season at Haydock in the Betfair Lancashire Chase, which some would have called a dead heat, if not outright victory albeit by a nostril (a result which understandably still rankles with some of his camp). Last year's Ryanair winner over 2.5 miles, Imperial Commander – whose stable name is Nellie, short for Nelson! – is a very good horse indeed and there's no reason, time being on his side, why he won't have an outstanding chance again next year to prove his superiority.
Favourite Kauto Star looked a bit 'run up' or light before the race: did all that pre-race media attention get to him a bit this time? The ground had anyway turned a bit soft for him with overnight rain which turned into a downpour much earlier than forecast, and it was slippery on track. He ran well enough for a circuit but a bad mistake knocked both his rhythm and confidence for six, and Ruby never felt comfortable after that. A few fences later they fell, Kauto landing horribly on his neck and sliding several yards as over 67,000 racegoers yelled OOHHHH in unison at this moment of high drama. The relief when he scrambled upright was palpable, and Nicholls later said he felt the earlier watering of the track had saved the great horse's life by cushioning the fall.
Meanwhile his stable companion Denman, suited by the softer going and clearly in more amicable partnership with champion NH jockey AP McCoy than on their unfortunate try in the Aon at Newbury, challenged longtime leader Carruthers. Taking the lead, they looked likely as the second circuit unfolded down the hill to add a famous second Gold Cup to Denman's 2008 victory, and the crowd cheered them wildly.
It was not to be: Imperial Commander who'd jumped and travelled easily throughout, cruised up and led over the last, powering up the hill like the good horse he is, with the field well strung out behind. Last year's Grand National winner Mon Mome overtook Carruthers and Cooldine for 3rd in a photo for the places – as trainer Venetia Williams remarked, cheekily using this Championship race as a 'prep' for the big handicap! Brave horses indeed, in somewhat foul conditions, and Kauto got almost as much of a cheer as 'Nellie' when Ruby (somewhat controversially and against the 'Rules') cantered him back to show the stands that they were unscathed.
The six-man partnership Our Friends in the North (which had bought Imperial Commander for only £30,000) and their numerous supporters made the most of their celebrations, the party carrying on later at The Hollow Bottom, the racing-mad pub close to trainer Nigel Twiston-Davies's yard over the hill from Cheltenham: this was a very local victory. The always impeccably behaved 'Nellie' and the yard's other two winners, Baby Run ridden by Nigel's son Sam and Pigeon Island ridden like the Gold Cup winner by yard jockey Paddy Brennan and owned by yard stalwart Raymond Mould were paraded through a jubilant Guiting Power the following morning.
It must have been a sweet first victory in the race not just for Paddy – who declared it the 'best day of his life' – but also for Twister, that grand trainer of staying chasers, who used to be so shy he famously refused to speak to the press after his first Grand National win! His words after this victory did indeed have a few humorous barbs, given the dismissal of his horse's chances before the race...
As for the owners, they are still on cloud nine by all accounts: no doubt such a high-profile victory enjoyed by ordinary people who choose to get involved, and to put their dreams to the test of reality, can seem much sweeter than those of millionaires used to success; and over a week later Facebook fans are still buzzing with the exploits of their new equine hero!