The final Saturday before the Cheltenham Festival sees the Imperial Cup at Sandown take centre stage.
The tough handicap is essentially the last piece in the Cheltenham jigsaw, with the winner being afforded a £100k bonus for going on to win any race at next week’s four-day bonanza in the Cotswolds.
That feat hasn’t been managed since Gaspara landed the Fred Winter in 2007, trained by David Pipe. The Pipe name and the Pond House yard are intrinsically linked with the Imperial Cup.
David’s father, Martin, won an incredible six renewals of this race, including three in four years from 2002. Indeed, when Pipe Jr won back-to-back renewals from 2007, it meant five wins in seven years and an apparent stranglehold.
Only Baltimore Rock (2014) has obliged since but Friday Night Light, available at 8/1, arrives here with fairly sound claims. He was a good second behind the re-opposing Le Patriote at Ascot recently and, on better terms and with a visor fitted, will fancy his chances of reversing that form.
While that may happen, my idea of the winner is Master Of Irony for champion jockey Richard Johnson and trainer John Quinn. The lightly-raced six-year-old scored nicely for Johnson at Wetherby in October and was an eye-catcher in defeat subsequently at Newbury.
The Gerry Feilden in December was a tactical seven-runner race and Master Of Irony, with Davy Russell on top, was rather undone in the circumstances. He was outpaced three out before finishing better than anything, going down by just over two lengths.
He runs off the same mark of 133 at Sandown and a more even gallop seems likely in this heat. At 11/1, Johnson can roust a tune from him and perhaps even send him towards Cheltenham, where he holds entries in the Martin Pipe and the County Hurdle next week.
Earlier on the card comes the Grade 3 Novices’ Handicap Hurdle Final (13:50) where the Skelton brothers are fancied to land the spoils with 5/1 chance Al Shahir. He delivered an improved performance at Towcester in December when making all the running to get off the mark over timber.
Trainer Dan Skelton has likely had this valuable prize ear-marked since and an opening mark of 127 could be underestimating him. Prior to his Towcester win, Al Shahir had chased home the useful mare Maria’s Benefit and subsequent Betfair Hurdle winner and leading Supreme Novices’ contender, Kalashnikov.
That form looks fairly solid and it must be hoped he can rise up the ranks from his opening mark. He can start by landing the £42,000 on offer for taking away this Sandown prize. An each-way double on the pair might hopefully send us into Cheltenham with a little extra bankroll.
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