FOUR WEEKS TO GO!!
After the news late on Monday 11th February that racing would return in Britain on Wednesday of the same week, fears that the Cheltenham Festival may not go ahead due to the outbreak of equine influenza were all but wiped out, meaning we can focus on the actual racing forthcoming once again!
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 Two - LADIES DAY, will once again be greeted with the iconic roar when the tape goes back for the opening race - the Ballymore Novices Hurdle - previously known as the Neptune Investment.
Many horses may prefer to tackle this Grade One Novice contest with stamina assured, with ambitions to perhaps step-up to chasing in twelve months time.
Of course, there is the option to continue to pursue hurdling, with the Stayers Hurdle the obvious goal at the end of the line.
Recent winners have chosen various career choices: twelve months ago we saw Samcro, known as the Irish Banker of the week, take up the running on the home turn and asserted up the run-in to extend his unbeaten run.
Since then sadly, Samcro has been beaten four times and convincingly in all of them - by perhaps not choosing the right avenue; many believed he was a chaser in the making but trainer Gordon Elliott believed he had a real Champion Hurdle prospect - now vacated by star mare Apples Jade.
The ill-fated Willoughby Court landed this back in 2017, getting the better of Harry Fry's Neon Wolf - who also sadly passed away as a 6yo, whilst Yorkhill won the battle of the favourites twelve months prior for the typical duo of Ruby Walsh and Willie Mullins.
(Credit Racing TV)
It could be another two-horse contest this time around, with Champ - representing the best of Britain from Nicky Henderson's yard, looking set to stand toe-to-toe with Gordon Elliott's Battleoverdoyen - representing the best from Ireland.
Martin Brassil's City Island recorded a smart victory in a novice contest at Naas on Saturday - his third in a row over hurdles, and will attempt to spoil the party.
Next comes one of the finest races of the week - the RSA Novices Chase. Three miles of a mouthwatering test of jumping and stamina, this race's outcome could be the founding pillars of the following season's Gold Cup field.
We have seen some fantastic and emotional stories emerge from past renewal's - including Presenting Percy's outstanding display twelve months ago which has promoted him to be this year's Gold Cup favourite, but also was a fitting win for jockey Davy Russell, who had lost his mother in the week leading up to the Festival.
Might Bite's win in this back in 2017 set many people's heart rates racing themselves, when he almost threw away an accumulated lead of almost fifteen lengths, when after the last he began to veer right idling towards the crowd, and managed to get back up despite being headed by stable companion Whisper to win by a nose.
It really showed how much talent Nicky Henderson's then 8yo had, that he almost came to a standstill, yet still manage to prevail by the finest of margins.
This year, Santini heads the market again for the Champion Trainer - who could be seen this weekend in the Reynoldstown at Ascot. The 7yo has been renamed as one of the lay's of the week - similarly to what Might Bite was referred to before his date in the RSA nearly two years ago.
A common trend perhaps with Henderson horses in this contest, off the back of recently running in the Kauto Star at Kempton over Christmas.
Why though? Might Bite fell back in 2016 with the race at his mercy, whilst Santini - not on terms with the winner nor runner-up, powered across the line in the race two months ago, which looks to be appropriate attributes with Cheltenham's big hill coming into mind.
Delta Work looks set to turn up leading the way for Ireland - he is three from three over fences, since landing last season's Pertemps Network Final.
Other previous winners have moved onto subsequent Grand Nationals, with Blaklion and Lord Windermere both making Aintree appearances after victories in the RSA - Lord Windermere most notably won a Gold Cup!
The feature race of the day however is not associated with stamina or longevity, but more a test of physical speed in the Queen Mother Champion Chase - the equivalent to the Champion Hurdle on Day One, but for steeplechasers.
The current King - Altior, will return to his old hunting ground again this season, bidding for a fourth Festival win and a second Champion Chase in as many years.
He appeared to be in trouble travelling down the back straight in last year's edition, with Nico De Boinville clearly animated in the saddle.
The gap opened up and his class got him home, and he absolutely demolished them up the hill, dismissing top two-miler Min not for the first time.
Once again, the race is Altior's to lose, and he just looks in a different league to his rivals in the division. Footpad would of been the obvious alternative after a glittering display in last year's Arkle, yet his season has crumbled away, and we know Min cannot bridge the gap to him.
However, this race is for Champions and it is designed to find the best around over the minimum distance of two miles.
Altior joined a long list of those when taking this in exhilarating fashion last season, including former Nicky Henderson flag-bearer Sprinter Sacre, who completed a memorable return to the racetrack when taking this in 2016 for a second Champion Chase.
The late Special Tiara, who was running in his fourth Champion Chase, was a deserved winner back in 2017 - inflicting a shock defeat on 2/9 favourite Douvan, who's career has been bombarded and blighted by injury.
Moscow Flyer, Sizing Europe and Sire De Grugy are other famous names from this century to record memorable successes for their trainers and owners.
The second day also features the Cross Country Chase - the only race of the week that does not solely take place on either the New or Old Courses at Prestbury Park - hint in the name.
It is unsurprising that the commentators let-alone punters lose track of where their horses are on the track, as the runners encounter various unique fences on the way round of over three and a half miles.
Gruelling test for some real 'scopey' types that may have plans to run in the Grand National in the same season. We saw the rare double accomplished last year with Gordon Elliott's diminutive Tiger Roll - who like Altior, will bid for a fourth Festival success, and again this time in the same contest he won twelve months ago.
Credit Cheltenham Racecourse
Tiger Roll - only been seen once earlier this season when fourth in a less valuable Cross Country contest at Prestbury Park. Weights came into call there, whereas they do not at the Festival.
Off level weights, Tiger Roll looks another name to be in with a leading chance of glory at the Festival, and again will come up against well known opposition, in the shape of Josies Orders - winner in Ireland last weekend, Auvergnat and Ucello Conti.
The day ends with the Weatherbys Champion Bumper - the only flat race at the Cheltenham Festival, which looks dominated by Ireland yet again this year.
Bumpers are designed for horses destined to compete over obstacles in the near future, and offers more of an educational side of things for the somewhat youthful individuals in amongst the National Hunt scenery.
With so many unknown quantities, this race is no stranger to a shock result, including last year when Relegate cut through the field to land the spoils for Katie Walsh and Willie Mullins at odds of 25/1.
It is more of a case of who fancies it on the day, however that being said, we certainly do have some useful and reliable looking prospects with the future in mind heading for this year's final.
Envoi Allen must come under that category, as usually bumper horses are just beating each other, he has instead shown a real consistency when beating them repeatedly.
Three from three since being purchased by Cheveley Park Stud, he has got the better of many that he has faced before on the track, and has since taken up the role as favourite since doubts have been cast over stable companion's Malone Road's fitness, who has been equally impressive.
There are a couple who could turn up and spoil the party, by two horses from different yards who have both been recently purchased by top owner JP McManus.
McManus - clearly impressed by the displays of both Andy Dufresne and Blue Sari holds two strong chances, who both won stylishly on their recent respective stable debuts.
It looks as though Ireland might be winning this one.
The Coral Cup and the Fred Winter Juvenile Hurdle are the two big handicaps on the second day of the Festival.