THREE WEEKS TO GO!!
We are drawing ever close to the 2019 Cheltenham Festival, and with several trainers now wrapping up their most prestigious runners in cotton wool and bubblewrap after the last major meeting before the Festival from Saturday, the build up is now beginning to light up!
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.
Day Three - ST PATRICK'S DAY. A useful and common reminder that the Irish are in town.
Another outstanding day's worth of racing with so much more graded action to get stuck into, commencing with the JLT Novices Chase over two-and-a-half miles.
This race goes straight down the middle; it is designed for novices that share the ability to demonstrate a good turn of foot in terms of pace and speed and also to showcase their longevity - the skill to endure races over longer distances.
Or you could reverse that and say, runners entered in this are not deemed likely to completely stay the three mile trip yet for the RSA Chase on the Wednesday as good as others, or are classed quick enough for the Racing Post Arkle, held on the Tuesday.
It divides the two.
Nevertheless, the contest - otherwise known as the Golden Miller Novices' Chase allows horses to keep their options open in the year's to come - some may head down the Champion Chase route, others tend to step up into the Gold Cup division, or there is the option of staying over the current distance to compete in the Ryanair Chase in the two-and-half-mile senior field - a race showcased later on St Patricks Day.
It would also be fair to conclude that this race is the equivalent of the Ballymore Novices Hurdle, but over fences.
The race has only been going for eight years, and yet Willie Mullins has still managed to assume dominance in recent seasons.
Past winners include true greats in Sir Des Champs and Vautour, even Yorkhill before things sadly faded away, whilst last year it was Gordon Elliott's turn to reign supreme with the mare Shattered Love - who could run in this season's Gold Cup or Grand National.
(Credit Racing TV)
Many may remember Vautour pinging over the Cheltenham fences, whilst others may remember the Yorkhill success back in 2017, as not only did it finally get trainer Mullins and jockey Ruby Walsh on the board for the week, it was the first leg of a historic four-timer on the day for the pair.
This year, the entires seem undecided at this currently stage, with many holding cards in the three novice chases. Of those who look all but certain to line up here, Philip Hobbs' Defi Du Seuil, who has definitely turned a corner could go off the favourite, after his thrilling victory at Sandown latest - over Lostintranslation who could be seeking revenge.
The Colin Tizzard 7yo - who ran in the Supreme last season, does have form against the former Triumph winner, when he got the better of him at the Festival venue in the Dipper on New Years Day.
Glen Forsa could step back up to two-and-a-half after his remarkable victory over previous Arkle fancy Kalashnikov at Sandown, whilst Winter Escape and Chris's Dream could both represent the Irish.
Vinndication - who lost his unbeaten record at the hands to Defi Du Seuil, will be hoping to change his tactics in a bid to regather his momentum.
The next big race on the day is the Ryanair. With the Champion Chase (2m) and the Gold Cup (3m) the feature steeplechases at the Cheltenham Festival, sometimes the Ryanair Chase can be the one forgotten about.
A Grade One over two-and-a-half miles with fairly limited history, this race provides the perfect platform for horses perhaps bidding to step-up from the minimum trip of two miles to the Gold Cup distance of over three miles.
Otherwise, this race provides a chance for horses who favour this distance, due to the fact they are not fast enough for two [miles] or possess the endurance needed for three [miles] - which we have previously eluded to in the JLT novice event. It goes straight down the middle.
Several have used this contest though to enlarge their scopes and enhance their stamina, including placees Don Cossack and Voy Por Ustedes and winners Imperial Commander, Cue Card and what would of been for Vautour (also a winner of the JLT), before an unfortunate accident at the Willie Mullins yard prevented any further progress.
Last season, Balko Des Flos landed one of the biggest Irish gambles of the week when upsetting the 2017 winner Un De Sceaux, the latter who will look to regain his crown this year once again.
Many of those prominent in the market this year do have options to remain over two miles - for instance Min; one of the current market leaders, who landed the Ladbrokes Dublin Chase for a second year running, proving is one of the best over the distance around.
However, unfortunately for him he continues to fail to land a blow to Altior in the Champion Chase division, and probably unsurprisingly, connections are getting bored of the same outcome.
Therefore Min has an option in the Ryanair, to follow former stable companion Vautour's success in 2016, who won without touching a twig.
The 8yo had his first crack over a longer distance in England at Aintree at the back end of last year, when just held by the grey Politologue, before winning the John Durkan over the Ryanair distance in December on his first start of the season.
Min is joined at the summit of the Ryanair market by stable companions Un De Sceaux as mentioned, along with last year's Arkle winner Footpad.
Things have not really turned out for the 7yo owned by Munir and Souede this term, having fallen when well held on his reappearance before failing to hold on in the Sugar Paddy Chase over Christmas to the late surge from Simply Ned.
However there is no doubt in his quality, and he could bounce back over a different trip, similar in the case to fellow Irish recruit Monalee - trained by Henry De Bromhead, who comes from the other end of the spectrum.
Having always ran with great record behind worthy rivals in the most high-profile races around, the 8yo managed to finally get his head in front in a Grade Two over the weekend just gone at the time of writing, and will look to justify the form with Presenting Percy from last year's RSA.
He looks one certain of a place in the Thursday showpiece.
Then there is the case of Cyrname.
Credit Ascot Racecourse and Racing TV
The bookmakers are taking no chances should the Paul Nicholls gelding run in this by pricing him low, but the question remains on whether he will actually turn up.
After his domination in the Ascot Chase in Berkshire, he had leapfrogged Min at the top of the betting, but connections have stated that Cheltenham may not be on the cards, instead perhaps a trip to Aintree or even Punchestown.
Raised to a mark of 181 by the handicapper - three pounds above Altior, that figure would make him an obvious contender wherever he goes, after his back to back demolition jobs at the royal venue.
He comfortably finished clear of last year''s winner Waiting Patiently - trained by Ruth Jefferson, who was unbeaten until then when standing up to fences, along with a sea of multiple graded winners.
Those include Cyrname's stablemate Politologue - who we have already touched on as well as Fox Norton, both of whom are looking to brush themselves down quickly, and who could be joined by Nicky Henderson's Top Notch.
They are among the other British challengers unsure if they have the pace to settle for two or the grit and tenacity to head up to three, so this could be the perfect race for them.
The Stayers Hurdle though takes the prize as the feature race of the day, with the top staying hurdlers on the planet looking to stage their claims as the best around.
The event is run on the New Course at Prestbury Park, over the staying distance of three miles, where there are twelve hurdles to be jumped.
Last year, Penhill stormed up the run-in to land the contest for Willie Mullins and Paul Townend, with Supasundae and Wholestone second and third.
Penhill - as he did last year, is expected to turn up to Cheltenham without a preparation run and will go fresh, as he looks to be the major danger once again.
One of the stories of the season however, has been provided by the rapid progression of Paisley Park - whose owner Andrew Gemmell has hit the headlines as he cannot see the race due to being born blind.
An incredible and inspiring narrative, the horse itself has been immaculate on all four appearances this term for trainer Emma Lavelle, rounding those off with the victory here over the course and distance in the Cleeve Hurdle.
He has also landed the Grade One Long Walk at Ascot before Christmas, and looks to the biggest danger here to Penhill's crown or any other possible challengers hiding in the shadows.
Samcro could be the forgotten horse amongst all of them as his season looks for considerable turn around, with his Champion Hurdle profile capitulating earlier in the campaign.
Last year's Ballymore winner has had twelve months to forget in all honesty, but could be the surpirse package in the field for Gordon Elliott, who is also expected to send Apples Jade for the Champion Hurdle, thus cancelling her ticket in the Stayers.
Faugheen - the old boy in the field campaigns for another memorable Cheltenham Festival victory for Willie Mullins, whilst he could be joined by a number of stablemates including Bacardys and another Champion Hurdle flop Melon.
Jessica Harrington's Supasundae - last year's runner up, is also in contention towards the top of the market.
The race looks Paisley Park's to lose.
Credit ITV Racing
The last bit of top band action on St Paddy's Day is the Grade Two Dawn Run Mares Novice Hurdle.
It would be comical if we stated that Willie Mullins has never lost this race in it's history.. well he has not, but there have only been three previous runnings in the race's rather small history.
Three L's for Ireland Champion Trainer - Limini, Lets Dance, and Laurina - bidding for the Champion Hurdle it would seem this time around, was guilty of being the horse who won by the biggest margin at the Festival twelve months ago.
This year, Mullins could face stiff competition from his Irish counterparts, letalone the British. Henry De Bromhead has the exciting young mare Honeysuckle, who is three from three over hurdles so far.
She looks very interesting indeed, along with English Champion Trainer Nicky Henderson's Epatante, who has only raced once over timber, but showed an extremely good turn of foot at Kempton.
She is due to race however this weekend at the time of writing, so Mullins could have his work cut out in this contest at the Festival.
He has a number in the field currently, including the unknown Chante Neige, Masons Daughter who looks very smart, and last year's Champion Bumper winner Relegate - all of whom could be successfully mastered by this incredible trainer.
The Pertemps Handicap Hurdle Final, the Brown Advisory & Merribelle Stable Plate Handicap Chase and the Fulke Walwyn Kim Muir Challenge Cup Amateur Riders' Handicap Chase complete proceedings on Day Three.