Imperial Aura became the pride of Andoversford in 2020. Two Listed wins and a Grade 2 success later, he is the apple of trainer Kim Bailey’s eye and undisputed star of the yard at Thorndale Farm.
In 2021, the goal is simple – repeat winning up the road from his stable at the Cheltenham Festival, though not in novice handicap company. The prize Imperial Aura is aiming for this time is the Grade 1 Ryanair Chase.
Irish trainers and their horses have dominated this contest in recent years, with four of the last five renewals going to a raider from the Emerald Isle. Imperial Aura can expect typically strong opposition heading to Cheltenham from across the Irish Sea come March too.
The Ryanair Chase takes place on St Patrick’s Thursday, which seems to give to the visiting hordes every incentive to win it. However, the same silks that Imperial Aura races in were carried to victory by Imperial Commander back in 2009 when another local trainer to Cheltenham, Nigel Twiston-Davies, enjoyed big Festival success.
With the prestige of the Ryanair growing with each passing year, this season’s renewal could be one of the best ever. Imperial Aura, who is already fancied among early Cheltenham Festival day 3 predictions, should be braced for stiff competition.
Irish master trainer Willie Mullins has won this three times in the last five years. In Min, he has a horse that recorded a deserved Cheltenham success at last season’s Festival having spent much of his early career running against and losing to the mighty Altior.
Never quite able to match Nicky Henderson’s superstar over two miles, Mullins decided to swerve him completely. Min has made his own piece of equine history by becoming the first horse to win the John Durkan at Punchestown three times.
With a superb record over two-and-a-half miles, the Ryanair race distance, he took the spoils at the 2020 Cheltenham Festival despite coming into the contest off the back of a defeat in the Dublin Chase. Min needs this trip rather than two miles which he no longer has the speed for and, as defending champ, is a clear and obvious danger to Imperial Aura.
Then there is Samcro. A two-time Cheltenham Festival winner, Gordon Elliott’s charge has always saved his best for the Prestbury Park track. Things have not always been straightforward for this horse, who has needed breathing operations, but owners Gigginstown House Stud – including Ryanair chief Michael O’Leary – hold him in high regard.
Samcro prevailed in a thrilling photo finish to the Marsh Novices’ Chase at Cheltenham last season. Despite a defeat at Down Royal in Northern Ireland since, he can never be counted out because of his course and distance form.
Elliott may again bring Samcro to his peak for the spring as he looks for a third Festival win in four seasons. Imperial Aura must beware both him and Min, not to mention many other potential challenges from these Irish stables, if he’s to emulate Imperial Commander 12 years on.
Going for Sunday April 3 - Good (Thursday)
6m SE Cheltenham, nr junction of A40 and A436 (Exit 11A, M5)