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Imperial Alcazar stays fresh for Festival

Fergal O’Brien will chart a direct course to the Cheltenham Festival with Imperial Alcazar.

The seven-year-old ran out a comfortable two-and-a-quarter-length winner of a Pertemps qualifier at Warwick last month, and is as low as 8-1 with some firms for the Final at Cheltenham on March 18.

While Imperial Alcazar is also entered in the Stayers’ Hurdle on the same day, O’Brien is looking towards the big handicap instead.

He said: “He’s in good form and goes for the Pertemps Final at Cheltenham now, all being well.

“He runs well fresh, so he’ll go straight there without another run in between.”

Imperial rule delights Fergal O’Brien

Imperial Alcazar could have his sights raised to Grade One company after opening his account for the season in the Pertemps Network Handicap Hurdle at Warwick.

Making just his second start of the campaign, the Fergal O’Brien-trained seven-year-old, who holds an entry in the Paddy Power Stayers’ Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival, took a giant step forwards in running out a convincing winner.

Steering clear of the late drama, which saw Flemcara, Espion and Ardlethen all come down at the last, the 5-1 victor galloped on relentlessly to score by two and a quarter lengths.

O’Brien said: “We’ve been talking the horse up to the owners for a long time. He has not had many runs and we kept him in bumpers for a long time. It is only his second run of the season and we have been very patient, but they have been rewarded today.

“We think he is a very nice horse and hopefully he will keep progressing.”

The Ravenswell Farm handler will let the dust settle before deciding which route to take with Imperial Alcazar, who has both the Stayers’ Hurdle and Pertemps Final as options at the Festival.

He added: “Definitely we would (treat him as a Stayers’ Hurdle type). We will have a look nearer the time who goes where. Whether things change with Covid as to who comes over from Ireland, so that is why we put him in the Stayers’. It’s a lovely problem to have.”

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Although Flemcara escaped injury following the incident at the final flight, there was a sad postscript to the race, which caused around a five-minute delay to the concluding bumper, as both Ardlethen and Espion suffered fatal injuries.

Clerk of the course Jane Hedley said: “Sadly we have lost both Espion and Ardlethen. They had fatal injuries. We gave them every chance, but we had no option in the end and they have been humanely euthanized. Flemcara galloped off which was a good sign.

“Everything was in control behind the screens which allowed us to carry on, which we did. The veterinary teams did their very best as ever, but unfortunately we couldn’t save them. The connections were there and were very upset, but they were philosophical.”

Gold Bullion is a name to note
Gold Bullion is a name to note (Alan Crowhurst/PA)

Gold Bullion made a winning debut in the delayed bumper to complete doubles for trainer Paul Nicholls, jockey Harry Cobden and owner Malcolm Denmark.

Having secured Grade Two glory with Next Destination in the Hampton Novices’ Chase, the trio combined again with the five-year-old, who ran out a clear-cut four-and-a-half-length winner as the even-money favourite.

Assistant trainer Harry Derham said: “That was no surprise as he has been lovely the whole way through. He is a gorgeous horse that is so relaxed.

“He was green coming past the stands, that’s why Harry didn’t want to go too soon, but when he gave him a reminder he took off. He will be a serious novice hurdler over two and half miles.”

Sky Pirate looks to have a bright future
Sky Pirate looks to have a bright future (Alan Crowhurst/PA)

Elsewhere on the card, Sky Pirate opened the door to bigger and better targets after continuing his progression over fences with victory in the Edward Courage Cup.

The Jonjo O’Neill-trained eight-year-old defied an 11lb hike in the weights following victory at Cheltenham to make it two wins from as many starts since being dropped back to two miles.

Moving past long-time leader Generous Day approaching the second-last, the 13-8 favourite pulled out plenty to defeat Amoola Gold by two and a quarter lengths in the hands of Jonjo O’Neill junior.

The winning rider said: “He is a bit of an enigma, as he has never shown at home that he wants two miles.

“But we had been meaning to try it and it worked out well at Cheltenham and it has worked out well again today. He is an improver at this trip.

“I think people have been getting him slightly wrong as I’m just not sure he gets the two and a half we were aiming him at, but I think he stays two miles strongly.”

Following the race Sky Pirate was cut from 7-1 into 6-1 favourite for the Grand Annual at the Cheltenham Festival by Paddy Power – a race which O’Neill junior believes could be a suitable aim.

He added: “He would (be a horse for a Grand Annual). He has won off 145 and won quite nicely. He is still a novice so we would have to have a look, but he will be entered up in everything I’d imagine.”

Will Sting strikes under Aidan Coleman
Will Sting strikes under Aidan Coleman (Alan Crowhurst/PA)

Will Sting (7-2) made the most of a drop back to two miles when giving weight all round to claim the Pertemps Network Novices’ Handicap Hurdle by nine and a half lengths.

Jockey Aidan Coleman said of the Lucy Wadham-trained winner: “The drop back in trip helped him. They went quite quick on that ground and they probably stopped a bit in front.

“He’S a nice-moving horse. I’d not sat on him before, but that ground didn’t seem an issue even though it was different to what he won on around Huntingdon.”

Imperial rule could be the order of the day this weekend

Saturday could provide an afternoon to savour for members of Imperial Racing – with Imperial Aura heading to Ascot and Imperial Alcazar well fancied at Haydock.

No stranger to big-race success – indeed Imperial Commander won the arguably biggest of them all, the Gold Cup, at Cheltenham in 2010 – this weekend has the potential to potentially rank with the syndicate’s best days.

Imperial Aura, trained by Kim Bailey, is already a Cheltenham Festival winner and looked better than ever in the Colin Parker Memorial at Carlisle on his return. He runs in a fascinating Chanelle Pharma 1965 Chase, while Imperial Alcazar is among the favourites for the Betfair Exchange Stayers’ Handicap Hurdle.

“With Imperial Aura we are in a position where we are thinking of the Ryanair, and I think we’ve every right to,” said Ian Robinson of Imperial Racing.

“He was very impressive at Carlisle, particularly on that ground as the placed horses would have liked it more.”

Imperial Aura only faces three rivals, but all have shown top-class form.

“It’s an interesting race, we know what Black Corton is, he never runs a bad race, Real Steel was the unheralded horse from the Gold Cup, beaten just over seven lengths and last off the bridle. He’s gone from one top trainer to another. Itchy Feet has probably got development in him as well,” said Robinson.

Imperial Aura and jockey David Bass celebrate at Cheltenham
Imperial Aura and jockey David Bass celebrate at Cheltenham (Simon Cooper/PA)

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“It probably won’t be a blistering pace with only four runners, but our horse does nothing but jump and he’s got an engine.

“We think he does stay three miles, but have decided to stick down the two-four/two-five route this season and he’ll either enhance his Ryanair credentials or he won’t. We’ll know more at 3pm on Saturday.”

Earlier in the season Imperial Aura was among the market leaders for last weekend’s Paddy Power Gold Cup – a race Imperial Commander won for the syndicate.

“Before the Paddy Power people were trying to draw comparisons with Imperial Commander, but he only had to run off 139 – this lad was on 157,” said Robinson.

“The Colin Parker was the right race for him and it’s also close to my heart as I lived in Carlisle for 27 years. In my youth I remember the likes of Ferdy Murphy and Lenny Lungo sending some really nice horses and in fact Nigel Twiston-Davies (Imperial Commander’s trainer), that was where I first spotted him when he came up.

“I didn’t want to go in the Paddy Power off 157 first time out and when it rained on Saturday it made it quite nice to be able to sit back and watch and not wonder what might have been.

“It’s a very competitive race and they are the races you want to be involved in.”

Imperial Alcazar winning at Leicester last season
Imperial Alcazar winning at Leicester last season (David Davies/PA)

At Haydock, the Fergal O’Brien-trained Imperial Alcazar looks to build on a promising season in novice hurdles.

“It’s turned into a big day I suppose,” continued Robinson.

“With Imperial Alcazar we were torn between going over fences or not, or going for this. He wants this trip, he’ll like the course and he won’t mind what the ground is.

“Paddy Brennan is very enthusiastic about the way he’s come out of the summer, but this has really turned into a fascinating race – at least I’d see it like that if we didn’t have a runner! It’s red-hot.

“Who knows what Ronan McNally has left in his locker with The Jam Man, you’ve a horse in Main Fact who has won eight in a row, there are a couple of graded horses at the top (Kalashnikov and Wholestone), Relegate won a Champion Bumper and the winner of the Pitmen’s Derby (Who Dares Wins) as well. And don’t forget Olly Murphy’s horse (Collooney). There’s a lot with chances.

“We know we’ll stay, travel and hopefully he’ll be there at the finish. We certainly think he’s better than a 140-rated horse. Whether he has enough in the tank to beat a field of that type, I don’t know.

“He’s go to step up but we have to make the leap one day, if he’s as good as we think he is this is the right race for him.

Imperial Alcazar was not far behind the smart Protektorat last season
Imperial Alcazar was not far behind the smart Protektorat last season (David Davies/PA)

“If we’d gone chasing he’d be going without any real experience behind him, he’s still quite backward in many ways so this race will do him good whatever happens.”

Unfortunately for Robinson and every other syndicate, the joy of owning a horse at present has been curtailed somewhat due to the pandemic and while he could have gone to one of the meetings, he has given the opportunity to others.

“I’m not going to either, we’re down to two badges a runner and having to run a ballot system. I just think it’s right I step out of the ballot to give everyone a chance so we have four lucky attendees,” he said.