Six hundred and eighty days may have passed since his last outing in public, but the Cheltenham faithful have not forgotten the dominative performances of the one-time Gold Cup victor, Imperial Commander.
Much has been made of the golden era of the Gold Cup; Denman and Kauto Star, whom held the Cheltenham Gold Cup on three occasions between them, had infused a sense of pride in National Hunt racing for many a year, a sense of delight and passion which kick started a support, reminiscent of football fans taking allegiance on one side or the other, prior to the 2010 Cheltenham Gold Cup.
Few had told Imperial Commander that this was the year of Denman against Kauto Star; the year that would answer once and for all who would be the greatest three mile steeplechaser of our generation.
With four fences to go, Kauto Star, the odds-on favourite for the epic clash of the titans, fell leaving his compatriot, Denman, in front with dead aim on a second Cheltenham Gold Cup victory, yet looming ominously large, picking his rivals off with each and every canter, was the bold sight of Nigel Twiston-Davies' Imperial Commander. As the riders angled to the second last, the writing was on the wall for the returning Denman, he would have to settle for second place again as the new kid on the block would surge to a deserved seven length victory.
With Kauto Star and Denman silks forming a plethora of scarves painting the Cheltenham grandstand in a multitude of shades of green, it was instead the secretly concealed, and somewhat unfancied, black and white silks of Imperial Commander that would reign supreme. The moral of the story? Never write off the underdog.
The following year would see a sense of turmoil for Imperial Commander. After unseating Paddy Brennan in the Aintree Bowl a matter of weeks after his Cheltenham glory, Imperial Commander would win on his comeback the following season, only to be pulled up before the last in his defence of the Gold Cup.
Having failed to make it round in his defence of the Cheltenham Gold Cup, Nigel Twiston-Davies' star twelve year old had not been since that day in March until Saturday. Anticipation was high, yet voices in the crowd which had witnessed him surge to victory in 2010 still doubted the son of Flemensfirth. Would he be the same horse? Could he come back off of the lay off?
Saturday the 26th January 2013 would become the day Imperial Commander grabbed your heart, squeezed it tight, held it close and then broke it in half through no fault of his own.
Having tracked the leaders for the first circuit whilst pulling hard, showing his eagerness and enthusiasm for racing, Imperial Commander angled to the front at the twelve fence. With six fences to go, Paddy Brennan took a peak between his legs at the competition - his horse was still travelling ominously well with the majority of his rivals toiling in his wake. As the exceptional story horse, Hunt Ball, tried once more to challenge the 2010 Cheltenham Gold Cup winner on his inside, he was turned away as the roar of the Cheltenham faithful began to project with exceptional volume; each and every one of them cheering their old friend home.
This would be it, this would be the day that Imperial Commander came back, turned away those doubters - all that was required was one final surge up the steep Cheltenham hill, a hill that had seen him thrust to victory on six previous occasions.
These days a cheer, a chant, a shout are all things that are absent from my armoury when attending a racecourse, yet the sight of Paddy Brennan and Imperial Commander heading for home up the Cheltenham hill was something that brought back those memories of 2010, those memories of standing in the crowds without the requirement to hold back. As he jumped the last, no more could be held back; 'Come on Paddy' I shouted over and over again, joining in with everyone else who stood in awe at the achievements of this returning superstar.
Leading by three lengths over the last, Imperial Commander had one final challenge to turn away. Denis O'Regan and Cape Tribulation, the winner of the 2012 Pertemps Final at the Cheltenham Festival, began to muster one final attempt at dethroning the Commander up the run in, angling towards the inside towards the rail of the hill. Imperial Commander mustered one final rally, digging deep to seemingly forge away for victory.
Heartbreak was to follow; with a distance left less than that that Usain Bolt could run in nine seconds, Cape Tribulation took advantage, usurped a tiring Imperial Commander, to snatch victory from the jaws of the defeat. Today would not be the day of a returning victor, but the return of a horse that would, instead, rekindle memories of victories past and gain a new army of fans.
As he cantered past the stands back towards the unsaddling enclosures, Imperial Commander would receive one final compliment. Rounds of applause and appreciation are rarely seen on Trials Day, they are normally saved for the Festival, yet few could dismiss applause to the performance of this stunning twelve year old chaser. This performance was much more gratifying than any Cheltenham Gold Cup Betting, and one to remember.
'Well Done Paddy' said an army of new followers. Come what may, Imperial Commander will be back in March, hopefully, surging clearer with race fitness on his side in a bid to regain the trophy he relinquished in 2011.
The Commander is back; Never write off the underdog.