Paddy Brennan has experienced many memorable moments at the Cheltenham Festival during his long career in the saddle – but nothing comes close to his Gold Cup victory aboard Imperial Commander 10 years ago.
In a contest expected to be fought out by Kauto Star and Denman, who had claimed the last three renewals of the race between them, the Nigel Twiston-Davies-trained nine-year-old stole the show by turning into the ultimate gatecrasher.
While it was not until Imperial Commander was touched off by Kauto Star in the 2009 Betfair Chase at Haydock that he could be seen as a Gold Cup contender, for Brennan the seeds had been sown 12 months earlier in their Paddy Power Gold Cup triumph.
He said: “It was probably the easiest winner of my career. He jumped off and took me to the front with ease after about five fences.
“I thought, ‘I’ve never sat on anything like this’. It was so easy, he got in under the last and I just pushed him up the run-in to beat Barbers Shop. It is not often you pull up afterwards and say, ‘this is a Gold Cup horse’. But that is how he felt.
“He was something different to anything I’d ever sat on. I knew I had ridden something I hadn’t ridden before. I couldn’t tell you what it took to win a Gold Cup, but if he didn’t tick the boxes I was never going to ride a Gold Cup horse.”
After securing victory in the Ryanair Chase later in the season, in between defeats in the King George Chase VI Chase at Kempton and the Punchestown Gold Cup, Brennan’s opinion that Imperial Commander was a Gold Cup winner in waiting was confirmed when pushing Kauto Star all the way at Haydock on his seasonal return.
He said: “That Betfair Chase is a race I always felt I won and lost. It was so close and the longest photo finish that I’ve ever experienced. As disappointing as it was to get beaten, I felt like I had ridden a Gold Cup winner that day.
“We got to Kempton again and it was the same story. That year in the King George I nearly fell off him early on.
“The initial reaction after the race was disappointment, but his training and preparation from that moment to the Cheltenham Festival was incredible, everything went right.”
In order to win a race of such magnitude, everything needs to fall in your favour and on March 19 that is exactly what happened – with Brennan executing the perfect plan aboard Imperial Commander.
He said: “We were under the radar, but deep down I kept saying, ‘I’m going to win the Gold Cup’. We had no excuses – we had the perfect preparation and the ground was right.
“I’ll never forget going down the shoot, Richard Bevis was holding one of my ankles and Fergal O’Brien the other, and they said, ‘you are the best jockey we have ever had, just go out there and do your best’, and that was like driving fuel through my veins.
“To win the Gold Cup you need everything to go right on the day. The plan was to get a good start and I was one of the first away from the tapes.
“I was just in control of the race and it was one of those moments in my life where things started happening around me from an early stage in the race.”
With Kauto Star suffering a fall four out, it was left to Denman to serve it up to Imperial Commander – but try as he might, his efforts to deny Brennan the Gold Cup victory he dreamed of fell short.
He said: “When Kauto Star made a mistake early on I thought, ‘this is going to be my day’, and everywhere in the race I kept telling myself I’m in control.
“I had Denman in front of me coming down the hill to the third-last. I knew he wouldn’t be easy to get past, but I was always confident I was going to win from there. He hit the line and I remember putting my finger up to my mouth to silence the crowd a little bit.
“The first reaction was the relief of riding a Cheltenham winner and the second was that I had won the Gold Cup – and looking to your right to see the crowd, it was just unbelievable.
“As much as it was a good feeling I didn’t come prepared and I had to ask AP (McCoy) for some money to treat some people to drinks, as I hadn’t brought any with me!”
While Imperial Commander would win the Betfair Chase on his return the following season, he came up short in the defence Gold Cup title 12 months later.
Brennan said: “He did it nicely at Haydock in the Betfair Chase, but I just think the Gold Cup took pretty much everything out of that day.
“His class got him through Haydock and I never believe I rode the same horse after the Gold Cup.
“It didn’t matter that he never felt like he did in the Gold Cup – he gave me the best day of my life and I couldn’t ask for more.”