There are several strong trends we can use to help us solve this puzzle including one concerning recent form. The first thing to note is that nine of the last ten winners had finished no worse than fourth on their most recent run. However, it is worth bearing in mind that only one of those nine were successful on their most visit to the racecourse. Only one horse misses out on this score, Admiral Barratry, who finished eighth at Haydock on his most recent outing.
Given that this race is restricted to novices, it is far from surprising that this race normally goes the way of a lightly-raced performer. However, only two winners in the last ten years had run over hurdles on five or more occasions, not good news for the likes of Admiral Barratry, Trixster and Golden Whisky.
In terms of age, six-year-olds have been the most successful group in recent seasons, having accounted for six of the last ten winners. Minella Awards’ victory two years ago means they have won three of the last five renewals and they are well-represented again this year with One For Rosie, Garrettstown, Admiral Barratry, Champagne Well, Trixster, Senior Citizen, Before Midnight, Boldmere, Golden Whisky, Diomede des Mottes all falling into the desired bracket.
In order to narrow down the field, it may be worth having a look at official ratings as there is quite a small group that have produced most of the recent winners. Horses rated between 128 and 132 have won seven of the last ten renewals so that seems the group to focus on here. One of the three exceptions to this rule came in 2010 meaning that six of the last eight winners came from the 128-132 group. The majority of the field sit within the desired bracket this time around, from Mill Green down to Boldmere as they appear in the racecard.
Closely related to official ratings is the weight carried and although it would be easy to expect the lower weights to dominate in a race of this nature, in this race at least, it has been those towards the top of the weights who have fared best. Six of the last ten winners had carried 11st 3lb or more to victory and those on the right side of the divide this year are One For Rosie, Muratello, Russian Hawk, Mill Green, Third Wind, Garrettstown, Admiral Barratry, Champagne Well, On The Slopes and Senior Citizen.
The final factor worthy of consideration is the betting and it is fair to say that favourites don’t have the best of records. Red Harbour is the only winning favourite
in the last decade but having said that, I wouldn’t be keen on straying too far from the head of the market. The 2014 winner Brave Vic was something of a surprise at 20/1 but of the remainder, seven of the nine went off at 12/1 or shorter. I would therefore give the favourite (One For Rosie) a wide berth but try to focus on those towards the front of the market.
CHAMPAGNE WELL – 6/6
Garrettstown – 6/6
Senior Citizen – 6/6
We have three horses who match all of our trends but the one who gets the nod is CHAMPAGNE WELL, whose run at Ascot in January gives him leading claims here. Fergal O’Brien’s six-year-old was beaten a short-head by the smart Downtown Getaway but he also finished ahead of a couple of his rivals today, namely Russian Hawk and Admiral Barratry. He might just have found 3m stretching his stamina when being disqualified at Ludlow last time and with the drop back in trip likely to suit, I think he looks one to keep on side.
Just missing out on the top spot is Garrettstown who won at Market Rasen in January before coming up short under a penalty back there last time. The winner probably just first run on him on that occasion and there is every chance that there is more to come from him now entering handicaps. He has the assistance of Champion Jockey Richard Johnson in the saddle and he looks another leading contender.
The final member of the shortlist is Senior Citizen, who finished in behind Garrettstown in fourth last time. He hasn’t really lived up to expectations since making a winning debut over hurdles in October but it is still early days with him and the step into handicap company could bring about some improvement.
2.25 Sandown – Matchbook Imperial Cup Handicap Hurdle (Grade 3)
The strongest trend in this race concerns weight and the cut-off appears to be set at eleven stone. Until London Prize’s victory in 2017, since Polar Red (11st 1lb) and Korelo (11st 6lb) won in 2002 and 2003 respectively all of the subsequent winners had carried less than 11st to victory. Only the 160-rated Call Me Lord misses the cut this time around, with the remainder of the field all carrying 10st 12lb or less.
The trends surrounding the ages of past winners of the Imperial Cup is an intriguing one. The most successful group of runners are those aged six and below who have put their head in front in seven of the last ten renewals. There are only seven horses in this year’s renewal who sit on the right side of this trend, the three five-year-olds Malaya, Monsieur Lecoq & Extra Mag and the six-year-olds Call Me Lord, Dream Du Grand Val, Storm Rising & Benny’s Bridge.
Martin Pipe loved nothing more than winning the Imperial Cup, a feat he achieved six times during his career, probably something to do with the fact that the sponsor offered a whopping bonus if the winner followed up at Cheltenham. Pipe senior collected that bonus on three occasions; twice as a trainer and once as an owner. Son David has wasted no time in picking up where his father left off with back-to-back wins in 2007 and 2008. He landed his third success five years ago with Baltimore Rock and saddles Extra Mag in this year’s renewal.
It is quite remarkable given the ultra-competitive nature of the Imperial Cup that nine of the last fifteen winners had achieved a top two finish on their previous start. It is often the type of race won by progressive sorts and there are three last-time-out winners in this year’s field – Dream Du Grand Val, Monsieur Lecoq and Benny’s Bridge.
It is often said that in such competitive races, you need a horse to be battle-hardened to go well but this has actually been a race in which novice hurdlers have done exceptionally well. In fact, they have produced six of the last ten winners. They have only five representatives this time around – Dream Du Grand Val, Storm Rising, Extra Mag, Monsieur Lecoq and Benny’s Bridge.
Given the competitive nature of the Imperial Cup, it is little surprise that favourites don’t have the greatest of records. The 2010 winner Qaspal was the last market leader to oblige and of the other nine winners in the last decade, only two were sent off at single-figure prices, we shouldn’t be afraid to take a chance on one at a bigger price.
EXTRA MAG – 6/6
Dream Du Grand Val – 5/6
Benny’s Bridge – 5/6
Having taken everything into consideration, the horse that tops our shortlist is EXTRA MAG. David Pipe’s five-year-old is the only member of the field to match all of our trends and is the least experienced, having only had three runs over hurdles to date. He looked a likely winner when unseating on his hurdling debut at Wetherby in November but has made amends since, winning well at Exeter before pulling clear of the rest when second to Nicky Henderson’s Precious Cargo at Kempton. He starts off life in handicaps on a mark of 132 which seems fair enough and given the yard’s previous exploits in the race and the fitting of cheekpieces for the first time, he looks a strong contender.
Just missing out on the top spot is Nicky Henderson’s Dream Du Grand Val who has won his last two starts. The fitting of a hood seems to have helped this six-year-old who justified short odds when landing the spoils at Kelso last time. It is quite possible that we haven’t seen the best of him yet and in this rich vein of form, he is unlikely to be too far away.
The final member of the shortlist is Benny’s Bridge, who was given a very confident ride by Paddy Brennan when winning in taking fashion at Cheltenham last time. The handicapper hasn’t missed him and has raised him 9lb but as he is racing from out of the handicap, he is effectively 14lb higher here. He is another is very lightly-raced and if he can settle as he did last time, he is likely to be doing all of his best work in the closing stages.
3.00 Sandown – EBF Stallions/TBA Mares’ Standard Open National Hunt Flat Race (Listed Race)
As always, a very competitive renewal of this mares’ Listed bumper, yet oddly for this race, only five who have actually won one so far in their careers. Silver Forever heads the market and Paul Nicholls’ charge was a good winner of a mares’ bumper at Ascot last time out, beating a few of these rivals, including Mystic Dreamer and Eyes Right, in a solid staying display. She’s quite short in the market though considering that she fell short in a Huntingdon Listed bumper earlier this season and this race is as strong – if not stronger – than that contest.
The second, Mystic Dreamer, ran a cracker there on her first visit to a racecourse and she could be expected to come on for that, so she could well reverse the form with Nicholls’ mare at a chunky price for Nick Gifford. She has bumper winners and plenty of stamina in her family so may be very much underestimated here.
Harry Fry often has good bumper mares and he’s got a couple entered here, with Misty Whisky and WHITEHOTCHILLIFILI, who both have a bumper win to their names already. The former won at Ludlow last time out and proved she goes on soft ground, but the stable number one is seemingly the latter who has Noel Fehily booked and is shorter in the betting.
On a line through Dan Skelton’s mare, Emma’s Joy, the form makes interesting reading – Silver Forever finished three lengths behind that mare at Huntingdon in the Listed bumper there, while Harry Fry’s charge beat her by almost 30 lengths at Warwick a couple of months later. So effectively, WHITEHOTCHILLIFILI has the comfortable beating of everything in that Ascot race on the book and even though the stiff track will suit Paul Nicholls’ mare, I think Fry’s five-year-old could well be the best horse in the contest. She ran well at Warwick last time under a penalty on ground quicker than ideal and on the visual impression of her victory in her first bumper at Southwell, she might well be very good indeed back on this softer surface.
WHITEHOTCHILLIFILI – 1pt win @ 4/1 (bet365, William Hill)
3.20 Ayr – Tennent’s Lager Handicap Chase.
Charmant arrives here in good form and will be looking to make it three wins from four starts over fences for James Ewart. The seven-year-old has taken very well to the bigger obstacles this season, winning his first two races at Sedgefield in November and then at Kelso the following month. He won both of those contests on good ground by wide margins, but faced with soft ground back at Sedgefield last month he could only finish last of the four runners. He was not beaten far, but after a promising start over fences he now has a bit to prove on Saturday with the conditions set to be soft again.
One who will like the ground the softer the better is SAINT LEO and he can make it third time lucky for Sandy Thomson. Having been a winner in France for leading trainer Guillaume Macaire, he was recruited to Britain for this season and was pitched in at Listed level on his first start. Although finishing last of the five runners, it was a hot race at Carlisle which was won by Mick Channon’s Mister Whitaker, with subsequent Listed scorer Happy Diva in second for Kerry Lee and Paul Nicholl’s impressive Ascot Chase winner Cyrname in third. The ground that day was good which would not have suited SAINT LEO and he showed more on his next run in the Castleford Handicap at Wetherby over Christmas time, staying on well to finish fourth. The soft ground will suit SAINT LEO at Ayr and the six-year-old can gain his first win in Britain on Saturday.
A possible danger could be the Diane Sayer-trained Tonto’s Spirit who made an encouraging chasing debut in January over Saturday’s course and distance. He was second that day and it was a good effort even if beaten comfortably in the end by Dan Skelton’s Destrier. The seven-year-old is open to improvement, but will have to find more off this mark in handicap company.
Of the rest of the field, Forest des Aigles has competed at a higher level on his previous two starts having won over two miles and five furlongs at Ayr in November. He finished fifth in the Grand Sefton at Aintree over the National fences in December and was then down the field in a Grade 3 handicap at Cheltenham the following month. The drop-in class will help the eight-year-old, but he may just prefer further than the two mile trip this weekend. Another looking to bounce back to form is Treshnish for Sue Smith who ran below-par at Kelso in a race won by Charmant when last seen. However, he had previously won at Newcastle only a week earlier so he could be involved if putting his latest effort behind him.
SAINT LEO – 1pt win @ 11/2 (William Hill)
3.35 Sandown – Matchbook “Best Value Exchange” Handicap Chase.
This 3m Handicap Steeple Chase looks to be a competitive affair with a lot of horses having a good chance so a few are worthy of a mention.
Starting with Commodore for trainer Venetia Williams and Hugh Nugent who takes off a valuable seven pounds. The 7-y-o gelding by Fragrant Mix was impressive in his last start at Warwick on New Year’s Eve winning by a comfortable six lengths as he drew away readily from the field. The win was empathic however there are question marks over the form as it wasn’t the strongest of races. Horatio Hornblower was behind in fifth and is unlucky to turn the tables with the winner however he did race a decent race afterwards finishing third to Mister Malarky at Newbury in January. Going back to Commodore his last victory came after a 249-day break and Wind surgery. So, they had the desired effect given the manner of the victory, but there are doubts whether he will be seen to the same effect again and his previous form is distinctively average, not winning in his first six starts for the trainer. Therefore, if he runs to the same level as his last run he’d have a good chance but if not he’ll struggle so I’m going to look elsewhere.
The likely favourite will be Ami Desbois for trainer Graeme McPherson and jockey Kielan Woods. The 9-y-o gelding by Dream Well has been in quite good form this season, such as his last run over C&D where he finished a good second behind Classic Ben. He was unlucky not to win that day and is the main reason why he’ll go off favourite, as it was a very pleasing run. Other things in his favour are a good run behind Ramses De Teilee at Chepstow in December as the winner went on to finish second in the Welsh Grand National so that’s highly respectable form and the fact that he finished fifth in the 2017 Albert Bartlett which shows that he has a bit of class. However, the doubts are that he’s carrying top weight with 11-13 and his losing run is opposable so at the price, I’ll be looking elsewhere however he is the main danger.
My tip for the race is BOB MAHLER for trainer Warren Greatrex and jockey Gavin Sheehan. The 7-y-o by Mahler hasn’t won this season however he has put up some good efforts in defeat. For example, his third behind On The Blind Side at Kempton in January. He did get outpaced and was never going to win but it was a decent display as he finished ahead of White Moon and was closing at the finish. The race before that he finished a good second behind Yalltari at Chepstow in December and was unlucky not to win as he was closing on the winner when he hit the last and had to settle for second. The horse in third that day was Prime Venture and that fits in nicely with Ami Desbois and he finished behind him in his Chepstow race when in finished third so this is a plus for BOB MAHLER with the form tying in nicely. Another positive is that in March last year he achieved a comfortable success over 3m at Wetherby so shows that he runs well at this time of the year and hopefully he’ll record his second victory in March here.
The main reason for picking him is because of his consistency, in his 14 career runs he has finished third or better 10 times, which shows that he is a model of consistency and an each-way bet seems very solid to me.
The 2m4f Handicap Steeple Chase has a small field of six participating, therefore a win option is the most sensible bet.
A good place to start is with the top weight Delire D’Estruval for trainer Ben Pauling and owner retainer jockey Daryl Jacob. The 6-y-o by Youmzain has raced in some competitive races this year and it has been a mixed bag. He started the season well beating Stowaway Magic at Carlisle in a 2m Beginners Chase but that form is suspect given the second’s poor form since, he then participated in races that were probably too hot for him as he finished fourth at Newbury behind Knocknanuss and then ninth behind Glen Forsa at Kempton. You can probably forgive those runs because of the opponents and he came back to form coming second to Brelan D’as which was an encouraging result but as the other results show he hasn’t been great this season and with top weight 11-8 I feel he’ll find one too good here.
Next is Risk and Roll for in-form trainer Paul Nicholls and jockey Harry Cobden. The 5-y-o has put in some decent displays this year, however hasn’t been outstanding and is yet to win this year. He got turned over at odds-on by On Demand in a match race at Newton Abbott in October and then fell before putting in his best performance of the season finishing second behind Mister Malarky at Plumpton. This is strong form considering the winner has won well twice this year, including a hard-fought success in the Sodexo Novices Chase at Ascot in February beating Now McGinty. Therefore, that is arguably the strongest form here but he hasn’t backed it up in his three runs since as they have all been disappointing. In his last run he finished 5/6 in an amateur riders Handicap Chase and on the back of that run he is certainly opposable. That is why I am going for ENOLA GAY.
The 6-y-o gelding by Fuisse is trained by Venetia Williams and will be ridden by Gavin Sheehan. He hasn’t won this season; however, he has put in a lot of good efforts and this is his best chance of getting his head in front. In his first run of the season he finished third behind Awake At Midnight by 1¼ lengths in a good run and he followed it up by finishing second to Swift Crusador here at Sandown over 2m. he was favourite that day and ran a good race beating some good yard-sticks in Cap St Vincent and Darebin, so although he should have ideally won he still put in a decent display.
He when put in his best display finishing second to Molineaux in a 2m4f Novice Handicap Chase at Wincanton in January. It was a great run considering he had a lot of trouble in running and was certainly an unlucky loser in a competitive race. His last run was at Cheltenham where he was a disappointing fifth behind Kildisart but it was a strong race and connections obviously feel he didn’t handle the track as they’re missing Cheltenham to come here and I fully expect him to bounce back.
Overall, I believe he has the strongest and most consistent form, in a race that isn’t participially strong therefore it should be the perfect race for him to pick up his first win of the season.
ENOLA GAY – 1.5pt win @ 5/2 (bet365)
4.30 Ayr – Caledonia Best Handicap Hurdle.
This looks to be a competitive handicap and the lightly-raced Eternally Yours arrives here in good form for Donald Whillians. The six-year-old has only had the six starts to date, winning twice from three attempts over hurdles. She made a successful debut over obstacles at Newcastle in April and then was not seen again until November, when she finished a close runner-up over Saturday’s course and distance. The mare then built on that effort to go one better at Newcastle the following month, winning easily by sixteen lengths. Eternally Yours looks to be progressive, but has been raised 11lb for that victory so will need to find further improvement up in class at Ayr.
Preference is for another lightly-race contender BUSTER VALENTINE to get back to winning ways and make it three wins from four starts for Ruth Jefferson. Having won a Point-to-Point on debut in April, the gelding was successful at the first attempt under Rules in November as she won nicely over two miles at Ayr. This was a very promising hurdles debut and he followed up with another win at Newcastle over two and half miles to end 2018. That performance earned the six-year-old a try at a higher level and he put up a good effort to finish second in the Grade 2 Classic Novices’ Hurdle at Cheltenham in January. Although no match for the smart winner, the Nicky Henderson-trained Birchdale, he was ahead of Fergal O’Brien’s Jarvey’s Plate that day which is useful form. BUSTER VALENTINE is now back down in class and can get his head in front again this weekend before going on to bigger targets.
Of the rest of the line-up, Nicky Richards has two chances and it could be close between the pair. Better Getalong was below-par last time in the Grade 3 Holloway’s Handicap Hurdle at Ascot, but prior to that had ran well on his seasonal reappearance at Haydock where he finished runner-up in the class 2 handicap to Nigel Twiston-Davies’ Ballymoy. If returning to that form back on soft ground he get could involved at Ayr. One For Harry has not shown his best form in three runs this campaign, but the eleven-year-old has now dropped below his last winning mark and will have his favoured conditions on Saturday.
Others to note include Silva Eclipse who has finished runner-up on his last three starts for Sue Smith. He can give his running again with the softer ground to suit, but may find one or two too strong for him here. Uppertown Prince is now back over hurdles for Donald McCain and could be interesting with cheekpieces applied for the first time, although he may struggle to defy top-weight in the contest.
Only 5 runners here but there is one that stands out on a class basis. Philip Hobbs’ DUKE DES CHAMPS was last seen at Exeter running over three miles from a 2lb higher mark. He carried 12st there and it was no surprise to see him weaken three out and finish fourth up against horse carrying a stone less than him, however, he jumped well and travelled really nicely through the contest before slowing down. This drop in trip to two and a half miles on softer ground and with a stiff finish should suit nicely and with Richard Johnson booked, this could be his chance to make his way back into the winners’ enclosure for the first time since January 2016. It’s his lowest handicap mark ever over fences and he’s got plenty of quality – was very highly rated over hurdles as a novice but lost his way last season, as many of Hobbs’ horses did – so I’d expect him to take advantage of 130 sooner rather than later as he’s a better horse than that.
In terms of dangers, The King’s Writ stands out after a good fourth in a much higher-class handicap at Cheltenham last time out. He won well at Exeter over this kind of trip in heavy ground the time before, so conditions won’t be an issue, but the jump in the weights for that win just might. He was beaten a fair way at Cheltenham despite staying on well up the hill and even though this represents a real drop in class, it could be that the handicapper has him where he wants him.
It looks down to these two and even though Peter Bowen’s Lord Bryan finished fourth behind subsequent Reynoldstown winner Mister Malarky on his last run at Newbury, he still has a bit to find to be considered for win purposes.
Just the fact that some geniuses were laughed at does not imply that all who are laughed at are geniuses. They laughed at Columbus, they laughed at Fulton, they laughed at the Wright brothers. But they also laughed at Bozo the Clown.