FIVE WEEKS TO GO!!
Not long now until the 2019 Cheltenham Festival gets underway, greeted by the infamous roar from the packed out stands at Prestbury Park.
Cheltenham - the pinnacle of jumps racing, the highlight of the season for many - the most highly anticipated week in sport.
It's what we are all looking forward to, as we see our favourite stars from the racetrack clashing and competing in the highest quality races on the globe.
Despite some reshuffling this week most of the racing schedule remains the same, so we can look forward to four Grade Ones on the adequately named Champions Day. For our tips on this day see our Champions Day Tips here.
The first day begins with the SkyBet Supreme Novices Hurdle - and what a way to kick things off. Some of the best two-mile novice hurdlers around come together to dictate who is the fastest around.
Similar to the Ballymore Novice Hurdle - the first race on Day Two over a slightly further trip, this race has always provided a great springboard for horses to progress onto bigger and better things.
Several horses have come out of this contest, and been Champion Hurdle contenders twelve months later, whilst others take up the chasing route on way or another.
The 2016 Supreme was arguably one of the strongest pieces of form around, with Nicky Henderson's Altior leading home a fourteen runner field, who have all then gone onto dominate our cards in their respective fields and divisions in their own way.
Seven lengths behind Altior was Willie Mullins' Min, who has become one of the greatest two-mile chasers around. If it was not for Henderson's star chaser, Min - now an 8yo, would currently be a two-time Cheltenham Festival - maybe even three if his campaign in 2017 was not cut short due to injury.
Back in third was the-now dual Champion Hurdler Buveur D'Air, whilst in sixth rested Jessica Harrington's Supasundae, who has gone onto win the Irish equivalent and Punchestown version twelve months ago.
Also in the field was Petit Mouchoir, who placed behind Buveur D'Air in the Day One showpiece in 2017, and is a classy individual himself, whilst Bellshill - who only beat one rival home; that being the Grade One Champion Bumper winner of the season before - Silver Concorde, ruled supreme in the Irish Gold Cup just a few days ago.
Last season Summerville Boy led home Kalashnikov - the same placings from the Tolworth at Sandown, whilst further down the field Lostintranslation and Sharjah have established themselves as Grade One horses in the months since.
The year before that, the querky grey Labaik won at odds of 40/1 for Gordon Elliott and Jack Kennedy - a horse who had incredibly refused to race in six of his eight previous outings, with the two that he started easy victories for the gelding.
A horse that had such character and a mind of his own, yet possessed enough quality to win a Supreme - in front of a fellow Irish counterpart who went onto finish a neck second in the Champion Hurdle a year later.
It is a race that commands a huge respect, and who knows what star will land the spoils this season. However never look to just the winner - or the second, or the third. Horses that come down the field, still may go on to be headline acts in years to come.
Many of those as we stated may go onto become fine chasers, some of whom may contest the following season's next race - the Arkle Challenge Trophy
A Grade One over two miles for Novice Chasers, many may use this route for cementing ambitions for future Champion Chases.
In recent season's, there seems to be one standout figure - thinking back not only to Altior, but also to the likes of Douvan; who was 2/7 favourite for the Champion Chase before injury took over.
Un De Sceaux and Sprinter Sacre other big names to take this, before Footpad did so last season in such sparkling fashion.
This season seems a bit of an exception, as there is no clear favourite - until Le Richebourg's fine display in the Irish equivalent at the Dublin Racing Festival just a couple of days ago.
Despite that, he lies as the 3/1 favourite with a sea of British challengers in waiting. Kalashnikov, Dynamite Dollars, Lalor - all of whom who hold form against each other this campaign, which is why it remains as the most open looking race of the upcoming Festival.
Then we come onto the big one, the Day One Feature - the first of four Championship races: the Champion Hurdle - a test of who is quickest over the smaller obstacles over the minimum trip.
A race with so much history and so much importance, it has sadly not really lived up to its' name in the last couple of years.
It was has had very poor build-up, and although we had one of the closest finishes in recent times twelve months ago, for much of the season Buveur D'Air was an odds-on shot for the race as there was not much quality opposition coming through the ranks.
Most of the horses from the 2016 and 2017 novice hurdle events - including the SkyBet Supreme opted to go chasing, and not a lot went onto to fulfil their talents over hurdles over this distance.
For the majority of the last couple of seasons building up to Cheltenham, Buveur D'Air has been winning in three or four runner fields, claiming Group One success and its' high-profile prize money without breaking a sweat.
This sort of race always has one clear fancy it would seem - there inevitably appears to be one that is clearly better than the rest. Last year proved a case of clearing out the old, as a few of the competitors came to terms with the fact they no longer have the legs to compete at that level, including the 2015 winner Faugheen.
But winning at odds of 4/6 last year, many people with good recollection will think back to the likes of Annie Power, Hurricane Fly and even Faugheen's success four years ago that despite the fact they went off well-backed favourites, they represented enough value to back with money.
This year however looks an exception, as Buveur D'Air proved he is beatable over Christmas, and will almost certainly not get everything his own way this time around.
This time we could have as many as three star performers - two of those mares with weight allowances, in line to take the crown for 2019 and not just one dominating the ante-post market.
Apples Jade's inclusion could prove decisive as we could have one of the greatest match-ups in hurdling history, and one of the best Champion Hurdles in recent renewals.
Despite options to go for the Stayers, the Mares and this the Champion, the mare proved at Leopardstown on Saturday just gone that speed is one of her finest attributes, with Michael O'Leary and Gordon Elliott seriously believing they finally have a horse that could win them both their first ever Champion Hurdle.
O'Leary had pointed out before the weekend she has unfinished business in the Mares, and that connections want to target the race she has the best chance of winning.
Clearly she does hold a strong chance in the Champion to rewrite the history books, as only the second mare to win the big one in the last twenty-five years. She oozes class, acceleration and agility, more so than many others in her field.
Punters have been crying out for O'Leary to be brave, and it looks as though the Ryanair owner has granted their wishes after interviews at Leopardstown on Sunday.
She has always had a great run of remaining injury-free, so this looks the obvious time to go for it when she well and truly in her prime.
Buveur D'Air versus Apples Jade, and potentially versus Laurina, who looks one of the brightest upcoming Mares of her generation. The Willie Mullins 6yo is unbeaten in five starts, and has never won less than an eighth length margin, proving her immense prowess.
A winner in last season's Mares Novice final, should all three clash, then we are in for an absolute treat on Day One of the Cheltenham Festival.
However, Laurina - like Apples Jade could still finalise a late switch to the final Grade One on Champions Day - the Mares final. Wherever they meet, it is going to be a fantastic match-up between present and future, but should they both head to the Champion, it looks as though this years' Mares renewal could be left wide open.
Past winners include Apples Jade - who only managed third last year, but also the Willie Mullins battalion of Vroum Vroum Mag, Glens Melody and Quevega - who won the race a record six times. In fact Mullins has only failed to land the spoils twice in the race's eleven year history.
A race that looks build for his genius, he of course could be represented by Laurina, but more likely so by last year's surprise winner Benie Des Dieux, who upset favourite backers when overcoming Gordon Elliott's top mare. Ireland's Champion Trainer could also be represented by Limini - favourite for this race two years ago.
Should Apples Jade and Laurina fail to turn up here the race looks left rather weak, but the likes of Lady Buttons and Mias Storm from English-based yards could fancy their chances.