Imperial Cup: the best bets, bonus hunters and potential headline makers
Everything you need to know about Saturday's feature race
As many as seven horses from out of the handicap could contest Saturday's Grade 3 Matchbook Imperial Cup Handicap Hurdle at Sandown should Nicky Henderson run Call Me Lord, with the five-year-old set to carry 12lb more than his closest rival.
A total of 29 runners remain after Monday's forfeit stage and here are some potential angles ahead of Saturday's race.
"Demon D'Aunou didn't really get home after travelling well over 2m3f last time and will appreciate the return to 2m. He might need a flat track anyway, but that Taunton race is working out nearly as well as the Bangor contest in which he was third the time before.
"Both efforts suggest a mark of 130 is reasonable for his handicap debut and this strong traveller should be suited by the way this race is usually run. The general 25-1 makes a fair amount of appeal."
"Alan King’s Fidux was unlucky not to score over the course and distance in November. He was coming with a strong run when hitting a swinging hurdle at the last and unseating rider Kevin Dowling. In-running punters had backed him to 1.55 to get on top and the fortunate-looking winner, Maria’s Benefit, has gone on to score three times since.
"He followed that with a good fourth in a Listed hurdle over course and distance in December and could bounce back from a disappointing run at Taunton last time, when he pulled hard off a slow pace in a small-field contest. This more competitive race and faster gallop will suit."
The Cheltenham bonus
Sponsors Matchbook have continued the Imperial Cup's tradition of offering a bonus – upped to £100,000 this year – should the winner follow up at Cheltenham the following week under a 5lb penalty.
But which horses could do the double? Well, topweight Call Me Lord has an entry in the County Hurdle, but a 5lb penalty on top of his current rating of 152 would mean he would need to be a Champion Hurdle horse to win – and he is in that race, so could take that option.
It took a mark of 136 to get into the Coral Cup last year and 133 for the County Hurdle and 135 would have got into the Martin Pipe Conditional Jockeys' Handicap Hurdle each of the last three years.
Consequently, that puts any runner rated 130 or higher in with a chance of sneaking into the festival.
However, the likes of Poppy Kay (136; County and Martin Pipe), Le Patriote (135; County and Martin Pipe), Huntsman Son (135; Coral Cup, County and Martin Pipe), I'm A Game Changer (133; County and Martin Pipe), Master Of Irony (133; County and Martin Pipe) and Demon D'Aunou (130; County and Martin Pipe) would probably need the penalty to have a chance of get in.
Hold the front page
If Call Me Lord could concede so much weight it would be especially noteworthy, while Paul Webber's Gwafa, who has had two recent runs on the flat to warm up, could have his first run over hurdles for 15 months in the race.
Nicky Henderson's progressive novice Whatswrongwithyou is chasing a three-timer, while his former protege Harry Whittington is seeking a fourth win in as many starts this season with Octagon, a horse who started his season in sellers.
Then there's Richard Newland, who won this in 2015 with Ebony Express, and has been on record as stating this is the race for Le Patriote ever since his win at Ascot last month.
The Imperial Cup is always a race that famed gambler and owner JP McManus likes to target and the Jonjo O'Neill-trained Demon D'Aunou is his only representative at the five-day stage.
And spare a thought for Gassin Golf, who is having his fourth crack at the race. He was second to Baltimore Rock in 2014 (off 121), third to Ebony Express and Rayvin Black (finished ahead of Thistlecrack and Camping Ground) the following year off 132 and tenth last year from a mark of 133. If he lines up on Saturday, at the age of nine, he will do so off a mark of 125.
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