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Honeyball not expecting an Encore at Festival

Anthony Honeyball says his focus is solely on the William Hill Imperial Cup rather than the Cheltenham Festival with Regal Encore.

Last year's Champion Bumper runner-up has been prominent in the betting for next week's County Hurdle ever since the market for this year's race opened due to his apparently lenient handicap mark of 130.

He was last seen finishing second to subsequent Rendlesham Hurdle winner Seeyouatmidnight at Hexham, which at the time looked a huge shock. In light of recent results, however, it was no disgrace trying to give 7lb to Sandy Thomson's charge, but Honeyball believes even if he picks up a 5lb penalty for winning today, he could still struggle to get into a race at Cheltenham.

After a torrid season, Honeyball is just thankful there is light at the end of the tunnel, and it is the Sandown race that dominates his thoughts, despite the £100,000 bonus on offer for a horse to win today's race and go on to score at Cheltenham next week.

"I've been pulling my hair out for the last few months to be honest, the way the horses have been running, " said Honeyball yesterday. "He's spot on, though, he's cantered this morning and schooled yesterday. I hope he performs jumping at speed. My biggest worry has been getting him to this point and now we've only got hours to go. Everyone has been talking about his mark, but I don't see how the handicapper could have given him much more at the time. We went to Hexham to get some more experience into him thinking they may leave him on 130 or go up a few.

"Obviously, the wheels fell off there, but at the time all of mine were wrong. Looking back on it, giving 7lb and getting beat two lengths, there was no disgrace there. In that race, they [Seeyouatmidnight's connections] knew he had the stamina and they made the most of it. They've stepped up to three miles now and that horse has carried on the improvement.

"I knew 130 wouldn't get us in at Cheltenham so we started looking at Imperial Cups of the past and knew he'd have a better chance. Even if he wins tomorrow I think 135 [with a penalty] will be touch and go."

Regal Encore's main market rival is the Paul Nicholls-trained Vibrato Valtat, second to Supreme Novices' Hurdle fancy Vaniteux in early December and an easy winner of an Exeter Listed event last time out.

Dan Downie, of owners Axom syndicate, said: "You'd have to think he's got a big chance. He's in great form and he came out of Exeter like he hadn't even had a run. We've been really happy with him since and this has been the plan for a while."

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