Experienced hands Nicky Henderson and Willie Mullins - with a staggering 129 Festival wins between them - look set to dominate Cheltenham's opening acts but young whippersnapper Henry de Bromhead could play more than a supporting role, writes James Parsons.
With four grade one encounters - including one of the most hotly-anticipated races of the week - the Cotswolds is readying itself for the greatest show on turf.
Sky Bet Supreme Novices’ Hurdle, 1.30pm
Nicky Henderson knows what it takes to win this race with three victories to his name and a further 12 placed horses over the years.
He’s made no secret that he considers SHISHKIN one of his best chances of the week and a contender for next superstar off the block at Seven Barrows. The way he picked up after the last fence and put 11 lengths between himself and decent rival Shakem Up’Harry in his penultimate start at Newbury, on heavy ground, was a touch of real class and bodes well for him staying up the hill.
Racing Post Arkle Trophy Chase, 2.10pm
Henry de Bromhead has a proven track record of improving decent hurdlers into top class chasers and he’s worked his magic again with NOTEBOOK who is rated 23lbs higher than his hurdle mark based on his faultless campaign this season.
Quite simply he has beaten all of his nearest rivals fair and square, he jumps like a stag and has a telepathic relationship with his super-talented jockey Rachel Blackmore.
In his prep run at the Dublin Racing Festival in February, Willie Mullins’ well-fancied Cash Back tried to serve it up to him only to find Notebook jump better and battle harder to edge that contest. Looks rock solid.
Ultima Handicap Chase, 2.50pm
Taking note of horses that have previously shown strong festival form is a great way to whittle down a short list and DISCORAMA finished second the last twice, losing out by only half a length to fancied Grand National entry Le Breuil in the best finish of the week last year in the National Hunt Chase. He’s had wind surgery since his last run on Boxing Day and first time out horses after this minor procedure have an excellent record next time out at the Festival (three from 18).
Unibet Champion Hurdle, 3.30pm
You can make a credible case for almost every runner in the field in the absence of an established superstar this year and that is an opportunity to take a chance on something each-way at bigger odds.
Before disappointing in the Christmas Hurdle at Kempton Park on Boxing Day, FUSIL RAFFLES was the number one Champion Hurdle hope in the powerful Henderson team that included the current favourite Epatante.
You have to forgive that unexplained performance blip but if you can put that to one side, you are getting a big price about arguably the best novice hurdler from last season, based on his victory at the Punchestown Festival.
Close Brothers Mares’ Hurdle, 4.10pm
Willie Mullins has trained some of the very best mares that have graced the Festival, including Quevega who won this race for six consecutive years and Champion Hurdle heroine Annie Power.
So it goes without saying that he knows what a good one looks like and he knows what it takes to win this race.
The highest compliment that could be paid to BENIE DES DIEUX is that she is the best mare he’s ever trained. She would be bidding for a hat-trick this year had she not fallen at the last with the race at her mercy last year and is a banker. The fact that unbeaten mare Honeysuckle is in the race means you may get a price on the day that is nearer to evens than long odds-on and that would be akin to buying money.
Northern Trust Company Novices’ Handicap Chase, 4.50pm
It seemed a strange move when Henry de Bromhead declared Put the Kettle on for the Arkle rather than this contest pitching that horse in again stablemate and unbeaten favourite for the race Notebook. However, if TRAINWRECK, running for the same yard, repeats the feat of A Plus Tard in this race last year – the most impressive winner of the week – it will make perfect sense.
National Hunt Challenge Cup Amateur Riders' Novices' Chase, 5.30pm
Patrick Mullins bids to win this race for a record third time with CAREFULLY SELECTED. It is a matter of debate how much sway he has with his father and the owners when it comes to which horse he may get the leg-up on in this amateur jockey contest, but considering the formidable firepower available at Closutton he rarely gets on one without a leading chance.
There was a rush to get this horse qualified after the weather played havoc with the programme book and two runs came in quick succession in January. But he won both despite making a few jumping mistakes on the way round and with those kinks ironed out, and a nice break since, he looks very tempting to bring up that record.