It seems fitting that the ante-post favourite for the 2021 Ryanair Chase at the Cheltenham Festival is trained just down the road from the course outside Andoversford. You would do well to get more local than Kim Bailey's Thorndale Farm stables to the home of National Hunt horse racing. After all, it is about seven miles as the crow flies, straight past our Point-to-Point course. If Bailey so wished, Imperial Aura could walk to the track. That is precisely what used to happen in a bygone era before horseboxes.
Recent horse racing results also tell you that there is arguably no steeplechaser in training on this side of the Irish Sea right now that has improved as much as Bailey's new stable star. Imperial Aura started 2020 with an official rating of 136 and ends the calendar year regarded as almost two stone better than that by the handicapper.
No wonder Bailey is dreaming of further Cheltenham Festival success with this impressive Kalanisi gelding. Since chasing home Simply The Betts in the Timeform Novices' Handicap Chase on Trials Day around Prestbury Park in January, Imperial Aura has never looked back.
It's only a pity that the race which really launched his career, the Listed two-and-a-half-mile handicap for novices over fences, is being moved to Sandown and making way for the new Mares' Chase as the Cheltenham Festival programme gets spruced up in 2021. The assessor was certainly impressed by Imperial Aura and the way he went about winning that in March, as his rating went up 14lb as a result.
This horse, for the time being at least, is done with handicaps. He held an early closing entry in the Paddy Power Gold Cup at Cheltenham's November Meeting, but Bailey instead opted to run at Listed level in an intermediate chase up at Carlisle on his reappearance.
Cumbria is the other end of the country from his home base at Andoversford, but Imperial Aura made a successful northern raid on a race with a very strong roll of honour. After taking the Colin Parker Memorial there, his sights were raised again to the 1965 Chase at Ascot.
Bailey won't thank you for reminding him that he first trained the winner of that event back in 1989 with Man O'Magic. He repeated the feat in 1991 with Kings Fountain and then had to wait nearly three decades to do so again.
Imperial Aura turned away solid Group 2 opposition, including Cheltenham Gold Cup sixth Real Steel and Sandown's Scilly Isles scorer Itchy Feet in Berkshire. His five-length victory there saw his BHA rating upped a further 6lb, leaving him a 27lb better horse officially than he was in January.
The path to a tilt at the Ryanair Chase probably doesn't take Imperial Aura through a Christmas outing, but there is the Silviniaco Conti Chase at Kempton under a penalty in January, or the Grade 1 Ascot Chase the following month. Bailey and his owners, the Imperial Racing Partnership, have resisted the temptation to try the Gold Cup this year, but in future why not?
For now, Imperial Aura has 7lb on ratings to find with last year's Ryanair Chase winner Min, who recently completed a hat-trick in the John Durkan at a foggy Punchestown. That rival will be 10 if defending his Cheltenham crown, and vulnerable to a younger horse just like Bailey's new challenger.
Once again, Gloucester trainers are leading the field with the top performers in the races that define the season. And to underline the overall wellbeing of his yard, Bailey saddled his 36th winner of the term this afternoon when Happygolucky justified favouritism to win the 3m Novices Chase at Cheltenham, winning a little handily in the event.
Looks like KC Bailey is back in the big time once again.
STOP PRESS: Racing abandoned due to Virus concerns
6m SE Cheltenham, nr junction of A40 and A436 (Exit 11A, M5)