Cape Tribulation tracks Hunt Ball as he heads towards Argento victoryPICTURE: Martin Lynch (racingpost.com/photos)
Cape denies Commander fairytale return in thriller
Report: Cheltenham, Saturday
Argento Chase (The Cotswold Steeple Chase) (Grade 2) 5yo+, 3m1½f
IMPERIAL COMMANDER came within yards of a fairytale return to Cheltenham as he and Cape Tribulation fought out a tremendous finish to a rollicking Argento Chase.
The former Gold Cup winner was making his long-awaited return to competitive racing, injury having kept him off the track for 680 days before this.
Yet until those crucial last ten yards you would never have known it. Here was the old Imperial Commander again, in all his imperious, domineering pomp.
In a mesmerising race he challenged Hey Big Spender for the lead and then, a long way from home, took it from him.
Among those that could not match this move were some big, talented performers - Grands Crus, Midnight Chase and Weird Al among them - but the admirable Hunt Ball could, and he went eyeball-to-eyeball with Imperial Commander until the final fence.
But it was Cape Tribulation who was set to spoil Imperial Commander's dream return. The Malcolm Jefferson-trained Cheltenham Festival winner was given an excellent ride by Denis O'Regan, who handed Imperial Commander a long headstart but ground down the lead yard by yard until, by the final fence, he was right on the leader's heels.
Cape Tribulation had made a mess of the penultimate fence but pinged the last. Even so, it looked for all the world that Imperial Commander had the race in the bag until, with the winning post looming and whole of racing roaring on the old champion, Cape Tribulation found that last little drop of fuel and stole past to take victory in what must be a contender for race of the season.
The pair will likely clash again in the Betfred Cheltenham Gold Cup, for which Imperial Commander was cut to 16-1 by the sponsors (from 40) and the winner 25-1 (from 100).
Imperial Commander trainer Nigel Twiston-Davies said: "He’s only been beaten half a length and I’m delighted as it’s been a rush to get him ready for this and he did not really help himself out there, because he kept pulling for his head. We can be very happy about that.
"It’s six and a half weeks until the Gold Cup, so we will take it from here. He will also have an entry for the Grand National.”
Jefferson, who has guided Cape Tribulation to back-to-back wins and out of a major slump following victory at last year's festival, said: "He’s going to have to go for the Gold Cup now. I’m not saying he will win it but he’s got a very good chance of being placed.
"I might be wrong but there appears to be a lot of two and half mile horses in this year’s race and he’s an out and out stayer. I think might even be better on better ground. It was a great performance today. I thought he was going to be second but Denis gave him a great ride. He’s a quality horse."
Hunt Ball came home in third and like his rivals looks bound for the Gold Cup.
Trainer Keiran Burke said: “I'm very, very pleased with the horse. He’s only been entered for the Gold Cup at the festival, so that has to be the plan. I don’t know whether he will have another run before March as that was a really slog."