|Gold Cup 1996 Imperial Call|
The annual pilgrimage of Irish racegoers to the Cheltenham Festival has become part of racing folklore. A traditionally strong Irish challenge for the big races has been a feature of the Festival since the resumption of National Hunt racing after a three-year break during the war years. Jumping continued in Ireland throughout the war and Prince Regent and Distel completed the Gold Cup-Champion Hurdle double for Irish stables at the first post-war Festival in 1946. Vincent O'Brien was among those who kept the tricolour flying, his achievements including winning the Gold Cup four times (three with Cottage Rake and a fourth with Knock Hard) and completing a Champion Hurdle hat-trick with Hatton's Grace. The Irish enjoyed their best year at Cheltenham in 1958 with eight winners including two future winners of the Two-Mile Champion Chase, Quita Que and Fortria, and the then-familiar O'Brien-trained double in the divisions of the Gloucestershire Hurdle (now the Supreme Novices') with Admiral Stuart and Prudent King, both well-backed favourites.
Irish fortunes at Cheltenham took a turn for the worse in the late-'eighties as high-spending yards in Britain bought up Ireland's best prospects. Only two successive victories by Galmoy in the Stayers' Hurdle saved a whitewash in the years between 1987 and 1989 and the next three years yielded only two winners each. Economic recession in Britain slowed the flow of good horses out of Ireland, while, at the same time, the Irish took steps to boost their own big-race programme. The revival of Irish jumping has yielded twenty Cheltenham Festival victories in the past four years, including seven in the latest season, a total not achieved since 1977. As in 1977, Davy Lad's year, the Irish haul included the Cheltenham Gold Cup, won, ironically, by a chaser who had been on the market_at a reported valuation of IR £250,000 plus commission_before he won the Hennessy Cognac Gold Cup at Leopardstown in February. Imperial Call had looked a good prospect from early in his hurdling days and took well to steeplechasing, winning three of his six races in 1994/5 when he also came a good third to Strong Platinum and Sound Man in the Power Gold Cup at Fairyhouse on his final start. Imperial Call didn't get the opportunity to tackle a distance beyond two and a half miles until the Hennessy Cognac Gold Cup, his fourth outing in the latest season. After winning a conditions chase at Clonmel on his reappearance, Imperial Call fell at the first in the Punchestown Chase, for which he started third favourite behind Merry Gale, who won the race for the second year running, and the Arkle Challenge Trophy winner Klairon Davis. Imperial Call resumed winning ways in the rescheduled McCain Handicap Chase, run at Leopardstown over two and a quarter miles in mid-January, taking full advantage of the 12 lb he received from Strong Platinum to beat him by a length and a half; Klairon Davis, starting favourite and conceding 7 lb to Imperial Call, blundered and unseated his rider at the fourth. The genuine Imperial Call raced with plenty of zest out in front in the McCain and looked sure to progress again, though some rather deliberate jumping detracted from his performance. British-trained runners Monsieur Le Cure and the 1995 Gold Cup winner Master Oats, who had filled the minor placings behind One Man in the King George VI Chase, looked very tough opposition for Imperial Call in the Hennessy, a race that had to be held over for a week because of frost. Imperial Call relished the step up in distance and produced a fine display of front-running, stretching the field with some exhilarating jumping and having all his rivals in trouble by the third last. He had the race sewn up when making his only mistake at the final fence and was value for half as much again as his six-length winning margin over Master Oats who, despite turning the King George tables on third-placed Monsieur Le Cure, still looked some way short of his peak. Imperial Call's comfortable victory stamped him, in our book at least, as a top-class chaser though there were those who regarded a cut in Imperial Call's odds for the Gold Cup from 33/1 to as short as 5/1 as an over-reaction. Imperial Call had started the season at 50/1 in ante-post betting issued by the Tote, sponsors of the Cheltenham Gold Cup. The going for the Hennessy was on the soft side and there was a school of thought that Imperial Call needed such conditions to produce his best; there were also fears that his inexperience at the top level might find him out.
The previews of the Cheltenham Gold Cup, which was run on good going, tended, naturally enough, to concentrate on the preparation of the short-priced ante-post favourite One Man, generally regarded as an outstanding champion after his resounding victory in the King George VI Chase. Reports of an `electric' schooling session by Imperial Call over eight fences at Clonmel at the beginning of March were given nothing like so much prominence, nor was the view of Imperial Call's trainer that `the horse is improving every day, he's better than ever'. Fergie Sutherland, an Englishman who became resident in Ireland in the late-'sixties, trains only a small string and had never had a runner at Cheltenham; indeed, he recalled being at the Festival only twice, the first time in 1953, the year Knock Hard won the Gold Cup. On Gold Cup day the Mackeson Gold Cup winner Dublin Flyer, who had missed his rescheduled clash in the King George VI Chase with One Man after his stable was held up by bad weather, vied for second favouritism with Imperial Call. With the previous year's Gold Cup winner Master Oats on the side-lines, it was 11/1 bar the first three in the betting. The fourth favourite Couldnt Be Better, winner of the Hennessy Cognac Gold Cup at Newbury, had had an unusual Cheltenham build-up, being prepared in the warmer climate of Italy. Rough Quest, a 12/1 shot, had won the Racing Post Chase at Kempton, and Monsieur Le Cure and Barton Bank were the only others to start at shorter than 25/1. The early gallop set by Dublin Flyer wasn't so strong as anticipated and the field remained bunched until well past halfway. Imperial Call tracked the leaders from the start, kept towards the outside, until his rider Conor O'Dwyer took him to the front, moving easily, at the sixth from home, the open ditch at the top of the hill. Couldnt Be Better, who went into the lead briefly, and One Man drew clear with Imperial Call from that point, and at the third last, with One Man on a tight rein and seemingly travelling at least as strongly as Imperial Call, the stage seemed set for a titanic struggle. Few could have anticipated the way things turned out, however, with Imperial Call shrugging off One Man with surprising ease after the pair rounded the final turn and faced up to the second last. At the final fence the patiently-ridden Rough Quest, who had made up ground hand over fist, momentarily looked a danger to Imperial Call but on the run-in Imperial Call was always holding him and won, going away at the line, by four lengths. Couldnt Be Better kept on for third, nineteen lengths behind Rough Quest with Barton Bank and Young Hustler also passing the floundering One Man who clambered over the last and finished like a horse with something amiss. The scenes as Imperial Call returned to a typically tumultuous Irish welcome verged on the chaotic. Supporters clamouring to get near forced their way in their hundreds into the unsaddling enclosure, after the manner of a football crowd surging onto the pitch at the end of the game. What if Imperial Call, hemmed in on all sides, had lashed out? There's food for thought here for the Cheltenham management who, with Imperial Call still only seven and probably open to more improvement and another Irish legend Danoli also being aimed at the race, could face a similar situation after the 1997 Gold Cup!
The leggy, sparely-made Imperial Call may not have a typical chaser's physique but he was bred for jumping. His sire the minor winner Callernish retired to stud as a jumping sire with more pedigree_he was a full brother to the Oaks and Irish Oaks winner Blue Wind_than performance. Imperial Call is from his penultimate crop, as is the smart hurdler Derrymoyle. Imperial Call's dam Princess Menelek gained her only success in a maiden point-to-point and is from an ordinary background. Her only other winner is Imperial Call's year-older half-brother Lisselan Prince (by Kemal), a fairly useful chaser, also trained by Sutherland, who passed the post first on two occasions in the latest season, in a maiden chase at Thurles and a minor event (from which he was disqualified on technical grounds) at Gowran Park. Princess Menelek was also represented on the racecourse by the Geoff Hubbard-trained Gipsy Geof (by Miner's Lamp), an IR 36,000 guineas purchase at the 1995 Derby Sale, a ring that Imperial Call himself passed through, changing hands for IR 6,000 guineas as a three-year-old before being passed on a year later to his present connections. Princess Menelek is a sister to the fair staying chaser Arctic Menelek and a half-sister to several other winners, the best of them being Monkey Ago, a fairly useful handicap chaser at his best, and Pan Arctic, probably remembered for his 100/1-victory in a well-contested novice chase at the 1985 Grand National meeting. Their dam Arctic Sue was a half-sister to the dam of the prolific winning chaser Imperial Black, the best representative of the family in recent generations before Imperial Call came along.
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