First run in 1907, the Imperial Cup is a Grade 3 handicap hurdle run over a trip of two miles.
For many years various sponsors from Paddy Power to William Hill have offered a substantial bonus to the winners that go on to victory at the Cheltenham Festival. Gaspara was the last to complete the double when going on to take the Fred Winter Juvenile Handicap Hurdle at Prestbury Park in 2007. Just a year later Ashkazar almost repeated the feat when second to Crack Away Jack, also in the Fred Winter.
Sadly for the first time since 1991 the bonus will not be on offer, though the race has now found a sponsor, with Close Brothers filling the void. This marks a further expansion of their interest in racing, as the UK merchant banking group already sponsor the novices' handicap on the opening day of the Cheltenham Festival, and just a few months ago agreed a three-year partnership with the Jockey Club.
With prize money for the race of £70,000 now assured, the event has once again attracted a competitive looking field. Affaire D’Honneur has been all the rage from a betting prospective, after his eye-catching performance at Newbury in the Betfair Hurdle. Arzal followed an identical path last year for trainer Harry Whittington, though he will be hoping for a better outcome this time round, with Arzal having been pulled up in last year’s race.
This fella certainly looked capable of building on the Newbury run, when after an atrocious start he still managed to finish in fourth place. He was still at the back of the field turning for home, before powering his way up the Newbury straight. Whittington picked him up from France where he had some decent form, and he looks sure to revel in the testing conditions at Sandown. He runs off a handicap mark of 133, and if Rayvin Black takes his place in the line-up, will carry 10st 10lbs. He looks to have a great chance.
No horse has carried more than 11 stone to victory since Korelo was successful back in 2003. Historically five-year-olds have a terrific record in the race, though only two have won in the last 10 years. Six-year-olds have fared better in recent times, but the ideal profile is undoubtedly a progressive sort with limited hurdling experience. Indeed, six of the last 10 winners had run just six times or less over hurdles.
Unfortunately in a 15 runner field, 14 participants carry 10st 12lbs or less thanks to the inclusion of Rayvin Black. The age of the contenders also makes it tricky to narrow down the likely protagonists, with no fewer than 10 at the ideal age of five or six.
Philip Hobbs is having a sensational season, and looks set to run the JP McManus owned For Good Measure. This five-year-old has also been popular with punters, and has the progressive profile having won easily on his most recent starts. However, he was winning a four runner affair off a mark of 120 at Exeter last time, beating little of note in the process, and this race is infinitely more difficult. He has to run in a competitive handicap off a 10lb higher mark, and I find him hard to fancy.
Ebony Express took the race 12 months ago and returns for another crack. He’s not shown much so far this winter, but his handicap has dropped accordingly. He looks a rather exposed seven-year-old, and though the handicapper has certainly given him a chance he’s not for me.
‘Beware the Moors’ was a quote from one of my favourite films; An American Werewolf in London. And there’s no doubting that the Moores have struck fear into the hearts of their opponents during an outstanding winter. Their record at Sandown is exceptional, with a 22% strike rate since 2011, which would have yielded a profit of 101.54 on a £1 stake. Quite simply, at Sandown Gary Moore and his team have to be followed.
They have an unexposed hurdler at the bottom of the handicap in Clayton. They changed tactic on the horse last time out, when allowing him to bowl along in front, and he duly hosed up in a maiden hurdle. It’s a tactic ‘Team Moore’ have adopted on numerous occasions in recent times, and this ex classy flat performer is certainly an interesting contender.
Knockgraffon is another with the right sort of profile for the race, having run just three times over hurdles and finished in the first two on each occasion. He’s been running over further but has been keen in his races, and the step back in trip may not be much of an inconvenience. He’s by Flemensfirth and should have no issues with conditions. Trainer Dan Skelton is in the midst of a sparkling spell with eight of his last 10 runners either placed or winning. This fella looks a fair price at 14s and could be in the mix.
Solstice Star also deserves a mention as he attempts a six-timer. His last win came at Cheltenham off a mark of 127 and he’s taken another hike which clearly makes his task that much harder. His progression has been phenomenal, but this looks a tall order.
Affaire D’Honneur, Clayton and Knockgraffon look the ideal unexposed and progressive types to me. It would come as no surprise should Clayton slip the field and hold them all at bay off his feather weight.