With overbearing regularity is the question from outsiders, the question that asks why we love our sport, why we find the sport of horse racing so enthralling and exciting with each passing day. "Is it the gambling?" they ask, but what little they know. Horses are exceptional creatures, friends in equine form, but also unique animals which never fail to amaze and amuse us. Another quiet Friday afternoon is upon us and whilst many begin to tick down the minutes until the weekend, I opt to stand invited by the paddock at Grange Farm, home to the yard of Nigel Twiston-Davies.
Surrounded by the beautiful Cotswold countryside, the paddock on this sun-kissed Friday afternoon is occupied by just three horses. Towards the bottom of the paddock, one horse lurks towards a patch of ground which has received a generous amount of attention from the precipitation that has overwhelmed the English countryside in recent weeks. Tracked all the way by a paddock mate, the duo of horses curiously tap the tiny puddles with a multitude of inquisitive pats of their hooves until their inquisitiveness increases to a new level.
Long gone are the pats of hooves upon tiny puddles, instead the splashing of mud and water backwards and forwards between the horses is rife. Flicking water at each other for minutes on end, Hello Bud proves that his retirement has not ceased his enjoyment of life, far from it, instead he enjoys his playful retirement alongside Nudge And Nurdle, who awaits better ground to continue his racing career.
"He's fifteen going on five" says Head Lad, Richard Bevis, returning from a piece of work on the picturesque gallops that bless the Grange Farm facilities.
Looking on as the due of teenagers play on, rolling in the mud before running off and weaving between trees before galloping towards the back of the paddock, Imperial Commander stands tall in his hooded rug. Today, Imperial Commander is aware of unfamiliar onlookers. Rather than roll in the mud, an activity he so often partakes in, he stands and watches his friends from a safe distance uninterested by the pockets of water towards the bottom of the paddock, at least, for now. He'll be back for them later when the guests have disappeared.
It is four weeks to the day that the twelve year old, Imperial Commander, will aim to achieve a victory thought unthinkable just months ago, the reclamation of a Gold Cup which slipped away last in 2011. Having taken a season off due to a tendon injury picked up during pre-training, Imperial Commander was reunited with Richard Bevis at Grange Farm in the late September with an early season aim of reclaiming another race which had seen the sauntering victory of Imperial Commander in a previous year, the Betfair Chase, only for injury to play its hand yet again.
"Paddy [Brennan] came down to school him and he just did a leg, he struck into himself and had to have six weeks off" said Bevis. Not to be detoured, the Twiston-Davies were patient, thinking of the horse and putting his recovery first and four-most before any hopes and aspirations of further glory, slowly bringing the horse back to peak fitness with a series of racecourse gallops used alongside steady homework. A horse which is, to Bevis' own admissions, exceptionally hard to get fit, Imperial Commander rewarded connections with an exceptional performance on Cheltenham Trials day, a race which marked a comeback off of 680 days off the track. The well-being of horses in their care is a value that speaks loudly, clearly and with increased levels of vigour at Grange Farm. Whilst these exceptional animals have a job, and a job they enjoy, the yard ensure that their horses all get the chance to be just that - Horses. "We can have forty to fifty horses in the paddocks at one time" says Bevis, pointing out the number of fields belonging to yard in which they are able to turn out their horses on a daily basis, "This is natural for them, this is what they enjoy.".
Bevis, known as 'Sparky' to those close to him, has been a pivotal part of Imperial Commander's life since moving to Nigel Twiston-Davies' as a six year old point-to-pointer, and the bond between horse and man is there for all to see. When asked whether he believed Imperial Commander could be competitive in this year's renewal of the Cheltenham Gold Cup, Bevis exudes belief of his friend running a bold race yet again, he has been given enough time to recover from his exertions at Cheltenham in January, but Bevis will want nothing more than his companion returning safe and sound after the Festival and, in doing so, possibly opening the door for a well earned retirement with one final bold performance.
Testament to the love held for Imperial Commander in these parts, not only by those at the yard, is the plethora of victorious keepsakes which span the walls of the local public house, The Hollow Bottom, just a mile down the road. Previously owned by trainer, Nigel Twiston-Davies, shoes of the Gold Cup victor create the perfect centrepiece of the left wall alongside media cut outs from Commander's big day.
A horse of exceptional potential, Imperial Commander has never quite been given the respect he so richly deserves outside of this area of the Cotswolds. In his year of Gold Cup glory, in the race billed as the Kauto Star v Denman Show, the Nicholls duo seemed to overshadow the stunning son of Fleminsfirth who loomed boldly. Whilst winning new respect and fans alike with his monumental performance last time out, Imperial Commander lurks similarly going into this year's renewal with every chance in somewhat of an open year.
A playful twelve year old who had pushed his box door open with his nose earlier in a bid to escape whilst being rugged for turning out, we leave Imperial Commander alongside his friends, bucking and kicking, and exit the yard as the day comes to an end.
Imperial Commander may reclaim the Cheltenham Gold Cup in just a few weeks time, he may not, but if he does there will be very few dry eyes left to locate in this corner of the Cotswolds, for victory would cap one of the perfect comebacks of past Cheltenham victors of all time.
Photos Courtesy of Emma-Louise Kerwin (Goodtosoft.co.uk)