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Imperial Cup the key to Regal Encore’s Festival chances

Regal Encore, who has long been touted as one of owner JP McManus’ plot horses for a handicap at Cheltenham, will need to win the Imperial Cup at Sandown to give him a realistic chance of getting in any race at the Festival.

Last season’s Champion Bumper runner-up got off the mark over hurdles at Plumpton in November only to be turned over at odds of 1/9 at Hexham last time out by Seeyouatmidnight.

However, the winner has since gone on to give the form a strong look by winning a decent novice hurdle at Musselburgh and a Grade 2 contest at Haydock off an official rating of 142.

Judging by the exploits of that horse, connections of Regal Encore may well have expected the handicapper to up his rating from 130.

But that has not proved to be the case, and the six-year-old’s mark remains unchanged.

That has left connections with a major headache as regards the Festival, as he realistically needs a rating of 135 to ensure getting into races like the Coral Cup and the Martin Pipe Conditionals’ Handicap Hurdle.

Trainer Anthony Honeyball was undecided whether to run him in another novice hurdle or a handicap before Cheltenham, but that decision has now effectively been made for him.

The only big option remaining for Regal Encore to guarantee him getting a penalty, and the required mark for the Festival, is the Imperial Cup at Sandown.

That ultra-competitive contest comes just three days before the Festival gets underway on March 11th, but there is a bonus for any horse that wins the race and goes on to score at Cheltenham.

Winners of this bonus have included Olympian (who won the Coral Cup in 1993), Blowing Wind (1998 County Hurdle) and Gaspara (2007 Fred Winter Hurdle).

Lightly-raced Regal Encore certainly has the right profile to potentially do the double, but with his trainer having yet to saddle a winner at the Festival the pressure is on in what has turned into a race against time.