Potential. That is the key word that will be bandied about by supporters of Imperial Cup favourite Regal Encore in the coming days and they're right to do so, at least according to us at Timeform with the Anthony Honeyball-trained six-year-old sporting a large 'P' alongside his weight-adjusted rating of 151.
Regal Encore will improve, of that there is no doubt, and connections will be hoping that he does so to such a degree that he defies an opening handicap mark of 130 in Saturday's highlight, incurring a penalty in the process and hopefully securing his ticket to Cheltenham. His likely improvement has clearly been factored into his price, with Regal Encore currently heading the market at 3.953/1, but there are a couple of other elements that may not have been taken into account.
It's difficult to crab Regal Encore from a form perspective, a smart bumper performer who finished second in the Champion Bumper at Cheltenham. His novice form over hurdles also has a strong look to it, beaten by Garde La Victoire on debut at Aintree, winning an uncompetitive affair at Plumpton and then beaten only be subsequent Grade 2 winner Seeyouatmidnight at Hexham last time. If anything Regal Encore should have won at Hexham, finding himself in a poor position in relation to the winner who kept rolling in front.
The issues are stable form and the fact that this is a much deeper test of his credentials. Honeyball is none-from-17 so far this year, sending out only three runners in February (two of whom were pulled up), and it has been reported that his yard as a whole have been in the grip of a virus. This is far from a slight against Honeyball as a trainer, but the 3.953/1 doesn't look such a good bet with so much uncertainty surrounding his string.
The crux of the issue is that this is the stiffest test that Regal Encore has encountered over hurdles thus far, and he could well improve yet still come up a touch shy against others that are also likely to progress. He may well be up to the task but 3.953/1 doesn't look value at this stage, and the call is to look elsewhere.
One of the likely improvers in opposition is Baltimore Rock, who was off the mark at the second attempt over hurdles at Wincanton in January and would have followed up at Kempton but for an ill-judged by Kieron Edgar. He made amends in style at Ludlow not long after however, having a subsequent winner behind in third, and should do better still, for all that this is clearly a different test altogether. His price looks to be on the generous side if anything though, currently available to back at 11.521/2.
It's possible to make a case for Court Minstrel, who has always appealed as the type to go well in a race of this ilk but seems completely dependent upon a strong pace given the way he's ridden, whilst Get Back In Line is an unexposed sort who will do better at some stage, though he's in the same ownership as Regal Encore so it may not be on Saturday.
A stronger contender may come from the stable of Paul Nicholls which looks set to be represented by Vibrato Valtat, another seeking a penalty to get into the Cheltenham handicaps. He hasn't always looked straightforward, his finishing effort lacking on a couple of occasions, but his form this season is strong and he finally got off the mark at Exeter last month.
The Exeter affair looked fairly weak but Tiqris, comfortably seen off by Vibrato Valtat, had every chance when being brought down at Newbury on Saturday so there is some merit to the performance but it was certainly more style than substance, Vibrato Valtat swaggering his way to the lead under Daryl Jacob before bounding clear when allowed an inch of rein after the last.
The way in which that developed clearly suited Vibrato Valtat but it was hard not to be impressed by how powerfully he travelled throughout, and he appeals as the type that could land this prior to playing a leading role in something like the County Hurdle.
David Pipe has a decent chance with Baltimore Rock but he could also saddle Swing Bowler, who certainly isn't one to give up on after an encouraging reappearance in the Betfair Hurdle. She needs to prove that she can hold it together and has presumably had a problem or two to be seen only once since Cheltenham last season, but is still lightly raced over hurdles after just six starts and could get her career back on track for all that she may struggle to contain those with obvious room for improvement.
The matter could be talked around for an age but it comes down to this: Regal Encore and Vibrato Valtat need penalties to run at Cheltenham, therefore they need to win the Imperial Cup. Of the two Regal Encore is open to the most improvement but stable form is a worry whereas Vibrato Valtat has plenty going for him, including the fact that he's currently trading at 6.25/1. He's the bet, and could well go on to make an impact at the Festival.
Back Vibrato Valtat @ 6.25/1 in the Imperial Cup