Nicholls' Imperial runner looks mint
Channel 4 Racing commentator Simon Holt previews Saturday's action from Sandown and Wolverhampton.
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VIBRATO VALTAT, a fine second over the course and distance earlier in the season, is fancied to give the Paul Nicholls team a strong confidence boost going into Cheltenham next week by taking Saturday's William Hill Imperial Cup.
This strapping grey looked the likely winner here at Sandown in December when going a couple of lengths up on Vaniteux on the run-in only to be outpaced close home by a horse who has gone up considerably in the ratings since and who could be a player in the Supreme Novices' on Tuesday.
Vaniteux is now rated 143 whereas Vibrato Valtat, beaten just a length and a half at level weights that day, runs here off just 130 despite having performed really well in two subsequent races.
On his next start, Daryl Jacob's mount was just touched off by the improving Three Kingdoms (well entered up for Cheltenham) at Kempton and then scored very tidily at Exeter last time out, cruising over the useful Tiqris in the closing stages.
A strong traveller, Vibrato Valtat will be well suited by the likely stronger gallop in handicap company compared to the novices and looks a progressive horse.
Last year's Cheltenham bumper runner-up Regal Encore seems set to start favourite despite being beaten at long odds-on at Hexham in December and off since.
At the time, that defeat appeared disappointing but there are two ways of looking a it: Tony McCoy's mount was, it turns out, taking on something special as the shock winner Seeyouatmidnight has done nothing but improve subsequently and is now rated 155.
However, on the down side, Regal Encore (although set to race here off just 130) was not so very far clear of several other horses who are well exposed as ordinary and have done nothing for the form.
New Years Eve, another past Cheltenham bumper runner-up (beaten by Champagne Fever in 2012) became a bit disappointing earlier in the season but has turned a corner with two recent victories, albeit in modestly contested events at Huntingdon and Market Rasen when fitted with a hood.
This stable companion of Three Kingdoms has always looked a horse of class but his resolution will be tested in this stronger event.
Meanwhile, top weight Swing Bowler looks sure to run well having made a highly satisfactory return to action in the Betfair Hurdle at Newbury, running on powerfully from the final flight to take fifth place behind Splash Of Ginge.
She might have been a little flattered there as the leaders had gone hard from some way out but this daughter of crack mare Lady Cricket is likely to relish Sandown's final climb to the line.
In a race full of promising novices, Harristown, Baltimore Rock and the physically imposing Little Jon are all of interest too while needing to post career-best performances to win.
At Wolverhampton, I will take a chance on GABRIEL'S LAD making a winning reappearance in the listed Ladbrokes Lady Wulfruna Stakes.
Tom Queally's mount has gone well fresh in the past and performed solidly last season in a variety of races, finishing ninth in the both the Wokingham and the Ayr Gold Cup (Hasopop 18th), winning at Newmarket's July course and later finishing fifth in Group Two company on the Rowley Mile.
A past winner on Polytrack, he has gone well first time out in the last two seasons and, in a tight looking contest in which Bertiewhittle, Hasopop and Dr Red Eye all look closely matched on recent Lingfield handicap form and Highland Knight makes his reappearance conceding weight over a trip which looks short of his best, Denis Coakley's charge could represent the value.
Later on, the beautifully-bred FASHION LINE should go close in the Ladbrokes Lincoln Trial following a dead-heat with the reopposing Sky Khan over the course and distance last time.
I felt that Michael Bell's filly, a daughter of Cape Cross out of the smart Shadow Roll, was a little unfortunate not to get the outright win that day having sat close to the pace, been kicked on early in the home straight and only joined by her much more patiently ridden rival right on the line.
If held up for a little longer, there should be further improvement to come from the lightly-raced Fashion Line who is developing into a nice prospect.