ITV Races

Betfair Imperial Cup: Tony Calvin takes an early look at Saturday's feature

Betfair Tipster Tony Calvin
Tony takes an antepost look at the Imperial Cup

We have another Betfair-sponsored card at Sandown on Saturday with the Betfair Imperial Cup the feature race of the day. Tony Calvin takes a look at the antepost market...

Betfair are again to the fore in the horse racing sponsorship stakes by supporting Sandown's card on Saturday, and I'll deal solely with their 100k Imperial Cup at 14:25 here.

The ground on the hurdles course is heavy, soft in places (as at 9.11am on Monday) - the BHA site states there are currently areas of saturated/inconsistent ground in the home straight - but, in common with the whole country it seems, a largely dry and sunny week is in store. Sandown could get 2mm on Monday evening, though.

That said, regular readers - and indeed all viewers of racing - know that the hurdles track at Sandown tends to be watching-through-your-fingers stuff if you have had a bet, whatever the official ground description and no matter how well your horse is going.

It really is hero to zero stuff in a matter of seconds for plenty of horses once they get on that run to the second-last and beyond.

The race wasn't an early-closer, so everyone had to start afresh when analysing the race on Monday afternoon, when we got 23 entries. There is a maximum field of 22 allowed on the day.

There used to be a bonus for any horse winning the race and following up at Cheltenham next week (it is not in place anymore), and the 2021 winner Langer Dan, for Dan Skelton, was unfortunate enough to bump into a 142-rated Galopin Des Champs when second in the Martin Pipe six days later.

Quick turnaround for antepost jolly

It remains to be seen if anything is similarly lobbed in this time around but the early favourite for this year's renewal is Jipcot, 7/24.50 with the Sportsbook.

I was somewhat deflated at seeing that price - Betfair were the first firm up just before 1pm on Monday - I can tell you.

We will come on to why shortly, though you can probably guess.

I tend to switch off from racing at weekends these days, so I wasn't too chuffed to see Jipcot had gagged up by 5 lengths at 7/24.50 in a five-runner handicap hurdle at Huntingdon on Sunday, as he had interested me for the Morebattle Hurdle a day earlier, only to be balloted out of that race at the overnight stage.

Serves me right for being asleep at the punting wheel.

Anyway, he won very well there and trainer Ben Pauling immediately namechecked a quick turnaround in this race for a horse he labelled a "hothead to train."

He carries a 7lb penalty here but it could be that the trainer found the key to him by running him in a first-time hood, in addition to belatedly putting the tongue-tie back on that he wore for his two victories in France, which came within 11 days of each other.

And, of course, by ditching the chasing campaign that saw him have three quick runs over fences in late autumn.

They presumably have always thought a fair bit of him - he was thrown in the deep end on his first start for the yard in last season's Triumph Hurdle - and Pauling remains in excellent form.

He came over from France with a BHA rating of 127 (and a fair old price tag, I imagine), so maybe there is the scope for plenty more improvement off, presumably, an effective mark of 124 here, with his 7lb penalty added to his winning Huntingdon mark of 117.

I am working on the assumption that his to-be-announced revised mark doesn't kick in until entries are made for the horse in the future, not that he could go up that much more than 7lb for his Sunday success.

That is the basis I am working on anyway, right or wrong.

This race is obviously a lot stronger than that one, but that Huntingdon handicap actually was a very decent contest for a 0-115 - the third and fourth went into it on the back of wins, and the second, from a stable in red hot form, had run well in defeat previously - so I was looking to get with him.

Price too short for me to get involved

Now, to the most important piece of any betting puzzle. The price.

Now, I fancy him for this, but no way am I playing ante-post at 7/24.50 in a 23-strong field, as it stands. It just isn't happening. He is as big as 5s elsewhere.

It could well be that Huntingdon on Sunday has left a mark that will only be revealed when he is worked later in the week, for one thing, and he hasn't really done it on the clock yet, either. And that "hothead" line sticks in my mind too, especially viewing his current odds.

Quite how many of the 23 will turn up here is anyone's guess, as the following are also entered at Cheltenham next week (some are in three races), and they may decide to go straight there as there is no bonus on offer.

They shouldn't, as this winning pot is worth £51,440 - the County last year was worth just over 56k - and there are no Irish entries to contend with, but you know the hold that Cheltenham has over most owners and trainers.

Mind you, plenty of these will need to pick up a penalty to even have an outside chance of getting in at the Festival, so who knows.

Those also entered next week are Spirit D'Aunou, Faivoir, Petit Tonnerre, Knickerbockerglory, Parramount, Sans Bruit, Go Dante, Making Headway, Bad, Shared, Welsh Charger, Moveit Like Minnie and Norman Fletcher.

In fact, I should have given you the list of the horses who have just the Sandown entry, as it is shorter. They are Jipcot, Punta Del Este, Bashers Reflection, Georgi Girl, Junkanoo, Goonhilly, Metier and Minx Tiara.

The BHA admin site doesn't have marks for the last pair, so I am not entirely sure what is going on there.

Donnacha has an entry at Exeter on Friday, and Lively Citizen is also in at Leicester and Ayr on the same day.

So how I am playing this now that Jipcot is too short in the betting?

Skelton runner very nearly a tip

The race is pretty tightly priced up, if truth be told, so I struggled to find a tip I would be willing to back myself. And that is obviously non-negotiable if I am putting anything up.

Bonus or no bonus, the angle into this race could be to find a horse who needs to win in order to definitely get into their Cheltenham target (that is, to pick up a 5lb penalty for winning beforehand), and one who has the ability to do so.

And it could be that Skelton goes looking for a win for last year's County Hurdle winner Faivoir, a 10/111.00 chance with the Sportsbook (who are betting to four places at the moment), for this very reason.

Faivoir has just the County Hurdle entry next week and he is currently not assured of a run in that maximum field of 26. A 5lb penalty for winning this would guarantee it, however.

And the horse is certainly fully capable of winning this off 136, just 2lb higher than for the Cheltenham win last year, after shaping much better when fifth under an inexperienced 7lb claimer in the Betfair Hurdle last time.

He also ran well enough on his only previous start here, albeit back in 2020, and we know he handles testing ground and stays further (as a 2m4f+ winner), a healthy attribute to possess at this often-attritional course.

If I knew he was definitely coming here, I'd consider tipping him at 10s win-only to small stakes - though I see he is 16s and 14s in places, which looks big enough to take the risk if you are so minded - but I don't. And connections may want to wait and gamble on him getting into the County off 136 next week, given an extra 5lb would be a big barrier to success there.

So, unfortunately, I have to be true to myself and say no bet for now. I will look at the other five ITV races on Saturday once they are priced up, but no promises as regards a second piece.

A (bit) shorter ante-post column than usual this week then, as I have basically put aside Monday and Tuesday as prep time ahead of the Betfair Cheltenham Preview in Dublin on Wednesday.

I have given the Festival betting a very wide berth this year, as quite frankly very few of the prices have appealed this season at any stage - I have had just two ante-post bets - but now is the time for serious study of all the 28 races.

I think it is 28, anyway, although it is probably 27 once I perform my yearly ritual of totally ignoring the Cross Country Chase.

Good luck.

Now read more previews in our Cheltenham Festival HUB.

PROFIT AND LOSS (Nov 1 onwards; 2023-24 NH season):

RETURN: 118.8
P/L: +41.8

PROFIT AND LOSS (April 16-Oct 31; 2023 Flat season)

RETURNS: 168.9
P AND L:  -33.1

*Exchange bets settled at Betfair SP for fairness


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