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Regal Encore’s festival bid hinges on Imperial Cup success

Regal Encore has been at the head of the market for two of Cheltenham’s most competitive handicaps for some time but looks unlikely to make the cut. He is currently number 90 in the County Hurdle entries with 10st 2lb and 116 in the Martin Pipe with 10st 9lb.

The only way he can boost his chances of making the line-up in either race is by winning the Imperial Cup at Sandown on Saturday and picking up a penalty. The JP McManus-owned gelding has been all the rage since his 66-1 Hexham conqueror Seeyouatmidnight went on to win the Grade 2 Rendlesham Hurdle at Haydock.

The six-year-old ran in the festival bumper last year and finished second to Briar Hill. He was second at Ascot on his first start over hurdles before winning comfortably at Plumpton.

Also attempting the double could be Lac Fontana, trained by Paul Nicholls. The useful novice holds five Cheltenham entries and is also prominent in the betting for the big handicaps.

He has a more realistic chance of making the County Hurdle with 10st 11lb and was an impressive five-length winner at the course in January. Nicholls could also be represented by Vibrato Valtat who won cosily at Exeter last time out.

David Pipe’s Swing Bowler ran well in the Betfair Hurdle after a lengthy absence when fifth to Splash Of Ginge. Philip Hobbs has a strong team for Cheltenham this year and may run multiple winner The Skyfarmer on Saturday.

John Ferguson’s New Year’s Eve is finally starting to fulfil his potential with three wins in his last four races. His only disappointing run came when beaten favourite at Musselburgh in December.

Nicky Henderson could rely on Fourth Estate, a good second to Ranjaan at Kempton in November. Charlie Longsdon’s lightly-raced Harristown and last year’s winner First Avenue also feature among an entry of 19 for Saturday’s race.