Imperial Cup 2014 Preview

The Imperial Cup is the highlight of Saturday’s card at Sandown and is still a prestigious race despite its proximity to the Cheltenham festival. With the big meeting starting on Tuesday, several of the leading contenders have one last chance to qualify for the big handicaps by incurring a penalty.

The Favourites

Two horses stand out at the weights, Regal Encore and Vibrato Valtat. Regal Encore needs a victory to sneak into the weights for the County Hurdle next week but connections have virtually ruled out a tilt at both races. The lightly-raced gelding was purchased by leading Irish owner JP McManus and finished second in the festival bumper 12 months ago.regalencore1

He had been expected to go to the top over hurdles but suffered a shock defeat at Hexham when beaten by 66-1 outsider Seeyouatmidnight. That defeat does not look quite so bad now with the winner having gone on to win a Grade 2 Hurdle at Haydock. Consequently he looks well weighted here with a rating of 130 and has been priced up as favourite.

Regal Encore faces a serious rival in the Paul Nicholls-trained Vibrato Valtat. The grey won with plenty in had at Exeter last month and could still have a few pounds in hand of the official handicapper. He is up 9lb on his old mark but he travelled so easily at the Devon track that he must be a big threat to the favourite. He could be a good bet at 4-1 with Bet365.

The Challengers

Swing Bowler is set to carry top weight for David Pipe and is another with Cheltenham entries. She finished fifth in the competitive Betfair Hurdle at Newbury behind Splash Of Ginge after a lengthy layoff. That was a fine effort and she is joined by stable companion Baltimore Rock, yet to finish out of the frame in seven career starts. His best form is on heavy ground so his supporters will be hoping that the track does not dry out too much.

There was a lot of money earlier in the week for John Ferguson’s New Year’s Eve who is another high-class hurdler. He finished second in the Champion Bumper at the Cheltenham festival in 2012 but has not quite scaled the heights over hurdles. The application of a hood seems to have done the trick in his most recent outings and he wears the headgear again on Saturday.

Charlie Longsdon’s Harristown is the only four-year-old in the race and produced a 20-1 shock at Huntingdon last time out. Last year’s winner First Avenue has lost his form completely and is a huge price to repeat his victory while Nicky Henderson relies on Fourth Estate. The race is due off at 3.15 on Saturday with a maximum field of 14.

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