Tomorrow is the turn of Sandown to take centre-stage, with the running of the William Hill Imperial Cup. A Grade 3 handicap hurdle run over two miles, it was first contested in 1907 and is one of the most prestigious hurdle races of the season.
Always a popular and highly competitive race, it is run on the Saturday before the Cheltenham Festival. Connections have an added incentive of a huge financial bonus of £100,000 should he or she go on to win any race at the Festival. Gaspara was the last to do so when she went on to win the Fred Winter at Prestbury Park. She was trained by David Pipe, and both he and his father before him have a terrific record in the race.
The Pipe team have won this four times in the last 10 years, including last March when Baltimore Rock was successful. When looking for a prospective winner punters should note the poor record of horses high in the handicap. Indeed the last to win carrying more than 11 stone was Korelo, yet another Pipe horse, back in 2003. Younger improving types have a great record in the race with horses aged four, five or six having won all bar two renewals since 2001.
Saturday’s showpiece will be run on soft ground with David Pipe’s four-year-old Bidourey currently the race favourite. Undefeated in five career starts, the French gelding was an emphatic winner of a novice hurdle at Sandown on his last start. In truth he’s beaten nothing of any quality to date and this will be by far his toughest test. But he’s a lovely big scopey horse who is very well bred being a son of Voix Du Nord out of a Mansonnien mare. He looks a horse for the future, and whether a race of this nature is coming along too soon, time will tell.
Paul Nicholls hopes to collect yet another big Saturday pot and sends Calipto in to battle just three weeks after finishing fourth in the Betfair Hurdle. That looked a decent performance having had four months off the track, but he’ll need to have improved considerably to win this. He stayed on steadily at Newbury with many of the opinion that a step up in trip would be favourable. Sandown’s stiffer finish is sure to suit and he will strip fitter, but whether he can improve enough is questionable.
The top-weight is another from France who brings some terrific form over the Channel. Camping Ground will have his work cut out to win off his lofty mark, with the aforementioned history very much against him. But he does look a classy sort and his UK debut at Warwick over fences was impressive. He does have entries at Cheltenham over the larger obstacles and this looks a decent prep-run with one eye on the bonus prize and one on winning at the Festival.
Arzal is likely to be a popular choice with punters. Harry Whittington’s five-year-old has impressed this winter and ran a belter in the Betfair Hurdle having had nothing but bad luck in running. Claimer Paul O’Brien again takes the ride and a valuable 7lbs off the back of his mount. He looks capable of another huge run.
West Wizard was seven lengths behind Arzal when they met back in November. Henderson’s highly touted gelding has proved frustrating and somewhat disappointing to date, though he has been beaten by several decent sorts, including Jonjo’s impressive novice Minella Rocco last time at Kempton. He’s handicapped to get much closer to Arzal this time round and has Barry Geraghty in the plate. A strong traveller and clearly talented he should go close, though he’s becoming hard to trust.
Of the remainder Some Buckle trained by Tom George and ridden by Paddy Brennan looks sure to go close. He’ll be dropping back in trip having run well in the Neptune trial at Cheltenham in January. Prior to that he only just failed to beat Glingerburn at Doncaster and he was last seen giving 9lbs and a beating to Bristol De Mai. That form looks as strong as anything here and odds of 14/1 look pretty generous.
Whoever takes the pot is likely to find they are travelling to the Cotswolds early next week in the hope of a very profitable quick-fire double.