Winning the Cheltenham Gold Cup is considered the pinnacle of National Hunt racing and for the Our Friends In The North partnership, now known as Imperial Racing, they achieved that very feat when Imperial Commander struck in the 2010 edition of the Festival showpiece.
That day, Imperial Commander proved unbeatable as he got the better of Denman and Kauto Star, who had won the previous three Gold Cups between them, defeating the former by seven lengths.
Imperial Commander was just the second horse sourced for the partnership – tragedy had struck when their first purchase, the promising Bobby Dazzler, died in a stable accident.
The process to securing their future Gold Cup winner involved businessman Ian Robinson making a trip over to Ireland, along with bloodstock agent Kevin Ross, who had sourced Bobby Dazzler for the group of friends.
Robinson recalled: “We went across to look at the three-year-olds before Christmas as when they become four-year-olds, the price suddenly inflates dramatically!
“I wasn’t sure if I wanted to go or not, having lost the other horse so soon beforehand. But I decided to go, and Imperial Commander was the last horse we saw. He was on antibiotics; he couldn’t do a lot and he emerged out of the gloom, with snot flying out of both nostrils.
“It was my boyhood dream but I never thought he would actually win it!”
“I went back to England with him on my mind and decided we had to buy him.”
Once acquired, Robinson began to work on the prospectus that would be sent to those who wanted to be a member of the new partnership. He wrote that the latest addition had been bought to win a Cheltenham Gold Cup.
“It was my boyhood dream,” said Robinson. “But I never thought he would actually win it!”
By Robinson’s own admission, their superstar wasn’t the soundest of racehorses but under the care of trainer Nigel Twiston-Davies, Imperial Commander stayed fit and healthy during the season he secured the biggest win of his career.
Robinson added: “He won his point-to-point at Summerhill in Ireland in record time and then he had virtually a whole year off. He didn’t take to hurdles because he didn’t really know whether to jump them or step over them.
“His novice chase season was truncated, and then he got a bad back. The year before the Gold Cup win he was only really 85% fit and we ran him in the Ryanair, as we thought the Gold Cup would be too testing.
“Imperial Commander had an untroubled preparation for the first time in his racing career and by the day of the Gold Cup, Nigel had turned him into a ball of solid muscle.
“We took on two superstars so couldn’t be over-confident, but we fancied our chances going there. Paddy [Brennan] delivered the perfect ride and the world just stood still; it was just a phenomenal feeling.”
“To actually rock up and run at the Festival is something even more special”
In tribute to their superstar when he was retired, the Our Friends In The North partnership was rebranded as Imperial Racing. In its efforts to return to jump racing’s top table, the group has adapted its model to compete in a competitive ownership sector.
Prices for store horses and point-to-pointers have reached eye-watering sums in recent years, freezing many out of the market. Imperial Racing is all too aware of the vast sums of money spent at public auctions and has instead identified an alternative method to sourcing stock.
Robinson explained: “The prices for store horses are very expensive and we’ve turned to buying staying foals, which don’t cost as much. At the Flat sales, most buyers are more interested in speed, not anything that’s stamina-laden.
“It’s been easier for us to identify the slow horses at the sales and buy the ones nobody else wants!
“We’ve always worked with Kevin Ross and I think the advantage we’ve got is that we actually fit in with his other customers. We’re quite happy to invest in a horse and keep it for a year before we syndicate it.
“If a horse needs time, it needs time. From the owners’ perspective, we understand they want to see their investment run. They don’t want to go through the pre-training process, so we take the sting out of that.
“Because we’re buying staying horses, it enables Kevin to get us really good value in the market. Being patient allows us to buy a better stamp of horse.”
Imperial Racing’s buying policy has been rewarded by the performances of a number of their horses this season, which bodes well for the future.
“We’re quite happy to invest in a horse and keep it for a year”
“You always have that nervous wait because you never really know if they’re going to turn out to be the horses you think they are,” said Robinson. “We had Fantastikas for 14 months before we syndicated him, because we knew he wasn’t close to running on the track.
“He’s run well in three bumpers and should really win before the season is out.
“We have Imperial Alcazar with Fergal O’Brien and he’s more likely to go to Aintree than Cheltenham. The natural race for him would be the Albert Bartlett and that’s the toughest of the novice races to win.
“We see him as a Graded novice chaser in the future and he needs a bit more time before we throw him in at the deep end.”
Another of those to have benefitted from a patient build-up is the Kim Bailey-trained Imperial Aura, who finished second to the highly regarded Pym at Cheltenham in December before a runner-up effort behind Simply The Betts at the Gloucestershire venue in January.
With the ten-year anniversary of Imperial Commander’s Gold Cup triumph imminent, Imperial Aura will bid to give those involved with Imperial Racing their second winner at jump racing’s most prestigious meeting when he contests the Northern Trust Novices’ Handicap Chase (2m4f) on the opening day.
Robinson said: “The novice handicap is the right race for Imperial Aura, and he’ll come on again from his last run. He’s reasonably well handicapped and he’ll run a big race.
“For the owners, having the run at Cheltenham when he was beaten by Pym was a very special experience. To actually rock up and run at the Festival is something even more special.”