Encore focused on Imperial Cup

Anthony Honeyball insists he is thinking solely of this afternoon’s William Hill Imperial Cup at Sandown rather than the Cheltenham Festival with Regal Encore.

Due to his apparently lenient handicap mark of 130, last year’s Champion Bumper runner-up has been prominent in the betting for next week’s County Hurdle ever since the markets were formed.

He was last seen finishing second to subsequent Rendlesham Hurdle winner Seeyouatmidnight at Hexham, which at the time looked a huge shock.

In light of recent results, however, it was no disgrace trying to give 7lb to Sandy Thomson’s charge, but Honeyball believes even if he picks up a 5lb penalty for winning tomorrow, he could still struggle to get into anything at Cheltenham.

After a torrid season, Honeyball is just thankful there is light at the end of the tunnel, and it is the Sandown race that dominates his thoughts, despite the £100,000 bonus on offer for a horse to win the Esher handicap and go on to score at Cheltenham next week.

“I’ve been pulling my hair out for the last few months to be honest, the way the horses have been running, ” he said.

“He’s spot on, though, he’s cantered this morning and schooled yesterday. I hope he performs jumping at speed. My biggest worry has been getting him to this point and now we’ve only got hours to go.

“Everyone has been talking about his mark, but I don’t see how the handicapper could have given him much more at the time. We went to Hexham to get some more experience into him thinking they may leave him on 130 or go up a few.

“Obviously the wheels fell off there, but at the time all of mine were wrong.

“He didn’t come back quite right from that run, so quite soon after we could explain that for ourselves and we weren’t too worried.

“Looking back on it, giving 7lb and getting beat two lengths, there was no disgrace there.

“In that race, they (Seeyouatmidnight’s connections) knew he had the stamina and they made the most of it, got the run of the race and kicked on from the front. They’ve stepped up to three miles now and that horse has carried on the improvement.

“I knew 130 wouldn’t get us in at Cheltenham so we started looking at Imperial Cups of the past and knew he’d have a better chance. Even if he wins tomorrow I think 135 (with a penalty) will be touch and go.

“I’m just happy to be going for a £70,000 race after the season we’ve had. To say we’d win it would be being presumptuous.

“I’m glad it’s a smaller field than usual and it makes senses to see if we are well handicapped.”

Regal Encore’s main market rival is the Paul Nicholls-trained Vibrato Valtat, second to the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle fancy Vaniteux in early December and an easy winner of an Exeter Listed event last time out.

Dan Downie, of owners Axom syndicate, said: “You’d have to think he’s got a big chance.

“He’s in great form and he came out of Exeter like he hadn’t even had a run. We’ve been really happy with him since and this has been the plan for a while.

“We thought he’s always wanted better ground but we might change our mind after tomorrow!

“He’s got the entry in the County Hurdle, we’d have been stupid not to, but even with the penalty I think he’ll struggle to get in. He’s there if it happens and he takes his racing well.”

Axom are also lucky enough to own Supreme favourite Irving and Downie added: “This has helped keep our minds off it a little, fingers crossed the drying ground (at Cheltenham) is what he wants but it won’t suit Shotgun Paddy in the four-miler. Thankfully his race is on the first day when the ground will be at it’s softest.”

Charlie Longsdon is represented by the only four-year-old in the field, Harristown, who skips the Fred Winter to run in this event instead.

Longsdon told his website: “I have decided to be bold and run in the Imperial Cup rather than wait for Cheltenham next week.

“I have looked through the race and, although very competitive, it will be a smaller field than next week and most likely to be softer going

“I also looked into the stats of four-year-olds in the race. Firstly I saw that no four-year-old had run in the race since 2010, but two had won the race from the last eight four-year-olds to run.

“Those four-year-olds were Ashkazar in 2008 and Gaspara in 2007 so the stats read quite favourably, but it will still be a tough ask.”

Richard Lee feels Gassin Golf goes there with a chance but he is still a maiden after seven runs over hurdles.

“He’s in good form and we’ve given him a break to freshen him up. The more the ground dries up the better for him,” said Lee.

“I just hope it isn’t too soft. He wouldn’t want hard ground but I can’t imagine any horse wants it as soft as it was been this winter.

“He’s racing off a lovely weight, but you must remember he hasn’t won over hurdles yet.

“On his best form you’d have to give him something of a chance, though.

“He’s grown a lot since we’ve had him, that’s been the problem, he hasn’t stopped growing.

“I think he’ll make a lovely chaser one day, he jumps his hurdles like fences already.”

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