Preview: Matchbook Imperial Cup Handicap Hurdle 2m Sandown Saturday

There are some very strong trends for Saturday’s Imperial Cup, not least the poor record of the more mature contender, as only seven horses older than six have passed the winning post in front in the last thirty three years. In the same period the lighter weights have also dominated, with only five carrying 11-0 or more to victory. The most successful training establishment has been the Pond House Operation of the Pipes with dad, Martin, winning on six occasions, and son, David, collecting three times. They have also been terrifically successful at targeting the bonus, (£100,000 this year) for doubling up with the winner at next week’s Cheltenham’s Festival, landing it three times, with Olympian in 1993, Blowing Wind in 1998, and Gaspara in 2007, all of which makes David’s contender this time, Friday Night Light, Of particular interest.

A 5yo son of Air Chief Marshal, Friday Night Light, won just one of his ten starts, (12f Heavy) on the flat when trained by Elie Lellouche in France, but since joining the Pond House operation last August, he has proved progressive over hurdles. He was successful off a mark of 111 in his third race for the yard, a Newbury Class4 Handicap, (Jan 17 Soft), and put up a decent performance two weeks later to finish second in a Taunton Class3 off a 10lbs higher mark. Stepped up to Class2 level three weeks ago at Ascot, (2m3 1/2f Soft) he was only beaten 1L by Saturday’s opponent, Le Patriote, off a mark of 123. He meets the winner on 3lbs better at the weekend, and with one eye on that bonus, (has two entries at The Festival) it could be close between them.

Another French import is the Alan King trained Fidux, and he also did all his racing in France on the flat, winning two of his nine starts for handler, K.Borgel, before joining the Barbury Castle operation in November 2016. He won his first two races for Mr King, lboth Novice Hurdles. He has drawn a blank in his eight races since, but did seem a tad unlucky unseating his 10lbs claiming rider, Kevin Dowling, at the last when looking the most likely winner of a course and distance heat, (Good/Soft) last November. The winner that day, Maria’s Benefit, is now rated on a mark of 147 and was receiving 7lbs, (Not including Dowling’s 10lbs claim) which does make the King horse look well treated on a mark of 134 at the weekend. He again showed his liking for the track a month later finishing 4th in a Class1 Handicap and can be excused his last run at Taunton,( 2m3f Soft) where he pulled far too hard. He wouldn’t be suited by testing conditions but if the ground is reasonable is one for the shortlist.

One who won’t mind testing conditions is the Dr Newland trained Le Patriote, and as his talented handler trained the 2015 winner, Ebony Express, he will know exactly what is required. Yet another French import, the 6yo son of Poliglote never raced on the flat in his home country but did win two of his seven starts over hurdles, both over 2m2f on testing ground, before joining the Newland yard last November. Taking a very strong hold on his first run for the stable in January, he travelled well but faded before the last (2m5f Kempton Soft) and finished 7th. He was a respectable 4th at Cheltenham a fortnight later but looked much more the finished article when winning that Ascot race from Friday Night Light three weeks ago( 2m3 1/2f ). He is 8lbs higher on Saturday but we may not have seen the best of Le Patriote yet.

The John Quinn trained 6yo Master Of Irony, rated 81 on the flat, won two of his first three Hurdle races last winter, and was second in the other, to leading Stayers Hurdle hope, Sam Spinner. He won comfortably at Wetherby in October and put up his best performance to date two months later, when getting to within 2 1/4L of the very useful High Bridge in the Class1 Gerry Fielden at Newbury. Improved for the addition of cheek pieces he doesn’t look badly treated on a mark of 133 giving him a racing weight of 10-7 and is worth considering.

Assuming Nicky Henderson leaves top weight, Call Me Lord in the race, his other contender, Whatswrongwithyou, will be left with just his original burden of 10-13 to shoulder. The very lightly raced 7yo has only run three times over hurdles, winning the last twice and getting to within a length of the useful Ainchea over Saturday’s course and distance first time up. He was quite impressive when winning his second race from that good yardstick, Ok Corrall, under a largely hands and heels ride, and as the runner up won next time out by 7L, the Henderson horse looks well treated on a mark of 139. It does seem a big ask for such an inexperienced animal to tackle such a competitive heat, but bear in mind that thirteen of the last seventeen winners were Novices, and seven of the last ten had run only five times or fewer over hurdles. Additionally Whatswrongwithyou had no problem dealing with the demands of a sixteen runner point to point, a race he won easily.

Selection: Whatswrongwithyou

E.W. : Friday Night Light

John Gray