The Imperial Cup Handicap Hurdle, run over two miles at Sandown Park, provides a tasty appetiser for the Cheltenham Festival next week although, for the first time for 25 years, the race won’t carry a bonus for any horse who goes on to win at the Festival (3.10 Saturday at Sandown live on CH4 TV).
Affair D’Honneur (7/2) has been all the rage for the Imperial Cup after staying on to finish fourth, beaten 13 lengths, behind Agrapart in the Betfair Hurdle at Newbury four weeks ago on just his second start for Harry Whittington (pictured).
The French import started slowly on that occasion – in fact, he appeared to shy at the starting tape – but was probably entitled to still be a little green after just three previous starts over hurdles. He remains open to significant improvement, but he is still a maiden and his odds are very short in a competitive race.
For Good Measure (6/1) didn’t see a racecourse until last March, but has made steady progress in the interim and very easily won a small 0-130 affair at Exeter when last seen in December. He takes a significant rise in class off a 10lb higher mark after an absence of 86 days and, while lightly raced horses, especially novices, have an excellent record in the Imperial Cup, he faces far and away his stiffest test so far.
Clayton (8/1) is 1lb out of the handicap proper, but is another who has proved popular in the ante-post market for this race. The Peintre Celebre gelding was a decent handicapper on the Flat for Kevin Ryan and got off the mark for his new connections, at the third time of asking, when winning a maiden hurdle at Plumpton by 16 lengths, eased down, last month.
Of course, that form is a world away from what is required to win an Imperial Cup, but it at least proved his well-being and his debut second, beaten half a length, behind Wishing And Hoping (now rated 128) at Ascot in November, suggests his initial handicap mark is fair enough.
Solstice Star (8/1) has been in fine fettle since returning to action at Chepstow in November, making all or most of the running to win his five starts. He has risen 41lb in the weights as a result, but looked better than ever when beating Cheltenian by 4 lengths over 2 miles 1 furlongs at Cheltenham six weeks ago and it would take a brave man to state, categorically, that his latest 7lb rise will prove beyond him. Course, distance and going should suit him admirably and his owners report him fit and ready to do himself justice, so he has plenty in his favour.
Others worthy of note are last year’s Imperial Cup winner and runner-up, Ebony Express (14/1) and the still-improving Rayvin Black (12/1). The former comes from a yard that has to be respected in this, and course and distance form is a valuable trend here. Rayvin Black may be lumbered with topweight but there is no doubt he is the absolute standout class horse in this field.
Adding weight will eventually stop any horse, but Solstice Star has been on such a sharply upward curve this season that there’s really no telling where his improvement may end.