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Imperial Cup Preview

In case you haven't heard, it's the Cheltenham Festival next week, you'd be inclined to think there is no other racing until it kicks off on Tuesday, but alas, you'd be wrong. Sandown has quite a decent meeting lined up tomorrow and the sun is out in Surrey, so the going might not be ridiculously deep. @tenembassy steps in to preview the feature of the day, the Imperial Cup.

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Imperial Cup Preview
Sandown, Saturday March 8th

Last 10 years – nothing carrying 11 stone or more has won, and the winners are a curious mix of well handicapped novices and established handicappers, as borne out by the SPs – four favs winning at 11/4 (twice), 10/3 and 9/2 but equally two 20-1 winners in the last 2 years and three other double priced winners.

This year seems to revolve all around the unexposed and potentially well handicapped duo of Regal Encore and Vibrato Voltat – can anything challenge them? Here’s my horse-by-horse take on the race.

Swing Bowler (D Pipe, 11-12, best price at time of writing 10-1)
There was a time when the Pipes farmed this race en route to winning the County Hurdle at Cheltenham (ask me to tell you my Blowing Wind hard luck story next time you see me, yours for the price of a cup of tea, guv) but they haven’t won it since Ashkazar in 2008. Swing Bowler, still relatively unexposed tries to rectify that. Another good run in the Betfair Hurdle at Newbury (third in race last year too) finishing fifth, staying on at the business end and not for the first time suggesting a bit further wouldn’t go amiss. The uphill finish here should suit but she’s gone up 3lb for that and had quite a hard race that she might not be fully over.

First Avenue (L Mongan, 11-10, 25-1)
Won the race last year off a 7lb lower mark (and had a 10lb claimer on) but since then, has been in a string of races that would not have suited (mainly on ground too quick). Came from way back to win this last year and worth bearing in mind he would have won here in the November before that, coming to win the race at the last but for tipping up on landing. Clearly likes the place, clearly inconsistent but the faster they go the better and a follow up isn’t totally out of the question.

Little Jon ((N Twiston-Davies, 11-6, 28-1)
A maiden after six runs and has been handicapped for this almost literally on his second to well-fancied Cheltenham Triumph Hurdle hopeful Callipto at Newbury. Allowed to set his own pace there (was dropping back in trip) and although we have already seen Splash Of Ginge nick the Betfair from the front for the stable, Little Jon will find this an altogether different test from Newbury and making all around here in heavy will take some doing.

Vibralto Voltat (P Nicholls, 11-3, 7-2)
Was running well anyway but seems to have improved again for the application of a tongue-tie on his last two starts, running the useful Three Kingdoms to a neck at Kempton (possibly done for speed, looked winner at last) before hammering Tiqris and Revaader (was getting 6lb from Tiqris, Revaader has upheld form since) at a more galloping Exeter. Is only 1lb higher than that win, track should suit, is clearly going the right way and again, a good pace up front will suit. Every chance but the fancier prices at the beginning of the week have gone, and now looks the right price rather than overpriced.

Regal Encore (A Honeyball, 11-3, 11-4)
The world and his wife has worked out Regal Encore is thrown in at the weights, being not only the runner up in the Champion Bumper last season but some of this year’s form makes him look chucked in too – beaten 2l by the now 155 rated Seeyouatmidnight at Hexham (gave winner 7lb) yet he rocks up here off a mark of just 130. Has a question mark to answer if the ground is really deep as to whether he will travel quite as well on it as he does good/good to soft but surely a bigger negative is the form of the yard. Do you really want to take 11-4 in a major handicap about a yard that, since the beginning of November has had three winners from 49 runners? It has to be a worry.

New Years Eve (J Ferguson, 11-3, 8-1)
Speaking of Champion Bumper runner ups, here’s the 2012 version. Beaten just over a length by Champagne Fever, he looked like he would have a good following season but a nasty trait of not going through with his effort developed and he (at the time, rightly) got called a few names. However, he seems rather transformed by the application of a hood on his last two starts, beating the far-from-useless Anton Chigurh on the bridle at Huntingdon and then disposing of a useful field at Market Rasen (over 2m3f) with the minimum of fuss. 7lb higher than that win but undoubtedly still well handicapped on the best of his form and maybe a bit more street-wise than one or two more fancied opponents. Track and ground ought not be a worry.

Chesil Beach Boy (J Coombe, 11-3, 66-1)
Sometimes you stop and look at something and think “that can’t be right.” And that’s what I did here – Chesil Beach Boy, bless him, has to carry the same weight as Regal Encore, Vibralto Voltat and New Years Eve. How did that happen? To be fair, he was fifth in this last year from a pound lower, but bottom line, is winless since Jan 2012, is fully exposed, and needs snookers to win this.

Knight Of Pleasure (G Moore, 11-2, 25-1)
Trainer in decent nick but I’m struggling to find the piece of form that says he’s got a major chance at these weights. Has some respectable runs on the board, mainly over a bit further, including an eighth to Flaxen Flare in the Fred Winter last year and a victory over the useful Dolatulo at Fontwell but paid for that and does look in the grip of the handicapper now. May well find things happening a bit quick for him too.

Baltimore Rock (D Pipe, 10-12, 9-1)
Second inmate from David Pipe’s yard and arguably a more interesting one. Made favourite for 5 of his 7 runs so far, and on Bumper form, where he beat the now 135 rated If In Doubt, he looks quite well treated off 125 today. Has progressed with each of his runs, learning to race better every time and won at Ludlow last time with the minimum of fuss, leading at the last and just pushed out to win an easy 4l. That form has been franked with the third Whispering Harry winning next time up, and with no issue with however soft the ground gets, has to go on the shortlist for a yard that’s done well in the race over the years.

Fourth Estate (N Henderson, 10-11, 14-1)
Rattled off a four-timer in Bumpers and Novice Hurdles at the start of his career (including a victory over the useful mare Toubeera at Ayr, Bury Parade back in sixth, both were with different trainers than they are now…) but not seen out for 19 months until a good second at Kempton to Ranjaan, beaten a neck in a race that wasn’t run to suit him at all. Normally, the “bounce” factor would come into it but has been given time to get over that run and the pace and track here should suit better. Not entered up at Cheltenham next week though, so perhaps not that much expected. Nevertheless, has to be respected off a decent mark from a big yard.

Somemothersdoaveem (V Williams, 10-10, 20-1)
Not been with the yard long (since December) and has brought along slowly, with last two runs have been much better, finishing second to Lord Protector at Chepstow and then travelling well but finding the Nicholls trained Ceasar Milan (thought good enough for the EBF final tomorrow) half a length too good (over 2m4f, pair miles clear). Has had a run around Sandown before, getting beaten 11l by the high-class P’tit Zig, staying on late after being well held up, but on last couple of runs has been ridden closer to pace. Despite getting put up 5lb for Chepstow, still looks well handicapped on some Juvenile efforts for John Ryan and possibility of more to come for a yard that seems to have a big Saturday winner every week. Soft ground no issue.

Harristown (C Longsden 10-9, 20-1) Those who take my Eyecatcher email each month love Harristown, as he was on the list for February and rewarded us with a gutsy win at Huntingdon at 20-1 so it’s with a degree of reluctance I pass him over today. That race rather turned into a bit of a farce, with him and Baradari nicking it from the front (no-one wanted to go on at start) and an 8lb rise for a length win looks a bit harsh. Still, the positives to take are that he’s still unexposed, doesn’t mind bad ground, and is still at the right end of the handicap here, but he won’t be pinching an easy lead today. Yard won this with Paintball a couple of seasons back so know what it takes, but even so, more to do here.

Gassin Golf (R Lee, 10-8, 14-1)
That 130k paid for him at the sales back in 2012 is starting to look a bit on the expensive side, given he’s not won one yet for the yard, and has been beaten in far easier races than this. Often travels well in his races (as was the case behind Vendor at Newbury last time) but has sometimes looked a weak finisher, which isn’t what you want at Sandown. Can sometimes take a hold in a race too and although I’m sure it’ll click at some point, simply too much to take on trust here.

Skint (A Brewer, 10-5, 40-1)
No win since December 2011 a huge worry, been beaten in considerably easier races than this this season and connections try a change of headgear tomorrow in an effort to put his head in front. The straws to clutch onto if you fancy it are that he won the EBF final on this card three years ago (when trained by Nicky Henderson) and is on a 10lb lower mark than that win. Difficult to fancy, although worth pointing out stable are one to be following over the next 12 months.

Summary
For me, of the ones at the front of the market, Vibrato Voltat looks the most likely but the value in the price dried up earlier in the week. Little Jon might well get his own way in front for a long while but if SOMEMOTHERSDOAVEM is ridden closer to the pace than he was on his last visit to Sandown he might well get first crack at the leader and with some reserves of stamina in his armoury could prove hard to pass for a yard that’s winning Saturday handicaps for fun. BALTIMORE ROCK looks a reasonable alternative for a stable that’s historically done well in this race, he’s going the right way and his form appears solid.

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