Cheltenham: Regal Encore has a very hard task against Baltimore Rock
Regal Encore will endeavour to send JP McManus into Cheltenham on a high by justifying favouritism for Anthony Honeyball and AP McCoy – just two winners short of his double century for the season – in today's Imperial Cup at Sandown.
Runner-up to Briar Hill in last year's Champion Bumper at the Festival, the six-year-old has won one of his three hurdle starts.
After making light work of poor opposition at Plumpton, he got turned over at long odds-on at Hexham last time, albeit by the smart Seeyouatmidnight, which has franked the form by scoring twice more in the meantime.
Off a first-time mark of 130 for 11st 3lb now, Regal Encore may well prove good enough to put himself in line for the £100,000 bonus pledged by William Hill if this afternoon's winner follows up in any race in the Cotswolds.
However, he has plenty of weight for what he has achieved and odds of 5/2 don't represent value in this competitive affair.
Interestingly, New Year's Eve competes off the same mark, having chased Champagne Fever home in the 2012 Grade One bumper at Prestbury Park.
John Ferguson's charge took a while to do himself justice over flights, but the application of a hood saw him score readily for a second time in three starts at Huntingdon in January.
He then followed up with a bit to spare on his handicap bow off 123 at Market Rasen.
Off a strong pace today, Jack Quinlan's mount could be a big player at each-way odds of 10/1.
There are plenty more of the 14 runners with chances, but the one that appeals as the best win option is Baltimore Rock for David Pipe, who has won this already with Gaspara and Ashkazar.
A five-year-old that has triumphed in two of its four hurdle starts since December, Baltimore Rock's most recent success was by far his best performance yet.
Having been turned over at Kempton after racing keenly, he went to Ludlow in deep ground off a four-pound higher mark and beat the able Canadian Diamond and previous winner Whispering Harry, which then paid him a fine compliment by winning at Newbury.
Today, Baltimore Rock is up another 9lb. That is no great concern, as the Tiger Hill five-year-old has the scope to progress beyond that on just his fifth start over flights and the strong gallop that he will get ought to enable him to settle well.
Crucially, when you see that no winner of this has carried 11st or more to victory since Pipe's father Martin managed the feat twice in a row to 2002-03, he has a fine racing weight of 10st 12lb.
In a race that the father-son duo have a special affection for as evidenced by an aggregate eight wins, then, Baltimore Rock looks the value option at up to 8/1.
If Tom Scudamore's mount does oblige, it will be fascinating to see if he might go on to emulate Gaspara and Ashkazar, which won and were just denied in the bonus quest, respectively.
Another of interest at the Esher venue is Gaillimh A Chroi in the mares Listed bumper.
John Queally doesn't send too many across the water, but they always merit respect when he does, and this Flemensfirth five-year-old looked the part when running away with a Gowran Park contest on her second track outing last month.
Fredo won the Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother Memorial Chase at Sandown yesterday.