Here we go again. Four magical days, living again with the excitement we had as children.
Cheltenham is like nothing else. Aintree does not compare and Punchestown has too many bad races to be quite up there.
The endless betting updates since last March can get a bit tedious but the bottom line is that Cheltenham matters more than anything.
I expect Britain to have more winners than Ireland this year and can see Nicky Henderson being top trainer, but Gordon Elliott and Willie Mullins are no men to underestimate.
Then we have Joseph O’Brien, who will soon be bigger than the pair of them. So maybe Irish eyes will be smiling often – and hopefully some of eight tips below will have you celebrating..
This is a brilliant renewal of the Champion Hurdle, with two mares among the top three in the betting.
I’m going to take on the top two in the betting. Buveur D’Air has been the subject of mixed messages over the past 12 months, while Apple’s Jade may be taken on up front and has never at her best at Cheltenham.
Laurina could be anything, but looks priced tight enough at about 4-1.
On a line through Stormy Ireland, Espoir D’Allen may not be a million miles off her and what I really like about Gavin Cromwell’s horse is his finishing surge.
It might not be quite up there with Altior, but if he is thereabouts at the last flight I can see him winning.
My ante-post book for the Festival looked far better last year than this. Ballyward at 6-1 for this race is up there with my better positions.
This horse is crying out for this distance, more so – in my view – than Ok Corral, who is clearly a massive danger.
Ballyward is an old-fashioned staying chaser but he is not as slow as he may seem and his Naas victory last time rates serious form.
He is one of my bankers of the Festival under Patrick Mullins and ground conditions make no difference here.
1.30: City Island
Battleoverdoyen looks likely to go well here, especially with the rain coming. He is probably a future Gold Cup contender, endowed with lots of stamina, but to win a Grade One on his second hurdling start at Naas marked him down as something special.
One thing he is not is a ready-made hurdler. City Island could be a bit slicker at his obstacles and he is preferred for the excellent Martin Brassil.
A smooth traveller, this has been the plan all season, as he is owned by Sean Mulryan of Ballymore, the sponsor.
His victory at Naas last time oozed class. “The owner is mad to have a runner in his own race and thankfully we might have fallen on one,” Brassil said afterwards.
Uradel fits the profile of a potential winner of the Coral Cup.
He is trained by Willie Mullins, in recent campaigns the dominant force at Cheltenham, while he has only had eight runs over hurdles and was unlucky to finish fifth over two miles at Leopardstown.
He was never really going to win at Leopardstown last time but he is surely well-handicapped over hurdles, especially as he steps up markedly in trip for owner Luke McMahon. The pair combined to win last year’s Coral Cup.
The longer distance seems certain to suit given that he improved dramatically on the Flat last year, notably beaten a neck in the Cesarewitch.
This suggests he is going to prove really well-treated reverting to a handicap hurdle just like the Coral Cup, with Ruby Walsh on his back.
2.10: Sire Du Berlais
Sire Du Berlais has had very little racing – indeed this is just his tenth start – but everything points to him having a sound chance in the Pertemps for the connections of Glenloe, who probably should have won the race last year.
He had a pretty perfect prep for this when a staying-on sixth at Leopardstown, form that looks strong but it hardly needs a genius to suggest he is capable of better.
That was his first shot at three miles but he clearly stays it and can improve over it.
He is by the sire of Don Poli and out of a mare who won a Grade One over fences and stayed two and a half miles. He has to be a big contender for Gordon Elliott.
Cheltenham handicaps now are so compressed in terms of ratings that it is not so much a challenge to get into a race rated as lowly as possible but simply to get into the race.
This applies to Measureofmydreams, who has managed to get into the Kim Muir nicely weighted under Jamie Codd.
Measureofmydreams has won on ground from good to yielding to heavy, so he should be fine at Cheltenham, and he was rated 147 when third as a novice at the meeting two years ago but now is off 137, having switched to Gordon Elliott.
On his first start for Elliott, he was an eye-catching third at Fairyhouse. He is a lightly raced 11-year-old and looks to have a strong each-way shout.
1.30: Sir Erec
Sir Erec is my banker of the meeting.
A high-class horse on the Flat, he has taken to hurdling so seamlessly that it is hard not to think of Istabraq. Comparisons have already been made and we will now see how apt they are.
He was much better, too, in terms of his technique last time than on his hurdling debut.
He had a minor scare with the stone-bruise last week but it should make no difference.
Joseph O’Brien has a real soft spot for this horse, who demolished the best of the Irish at Leopardstown. With the British juveniles not looking much good, he can win with authority.
3.30: Presenting Percy
Presenting Percy has basically answered every call over the past two years, albeit beaten when he took on Our Duke at Gowran last season, when the drop to two and a half miles was not ideal.
Much has been made of his preparation but Pat Kelly is nothing if not unconventional and this horse is the most beautiful of jumpers, I do not envisage his lack of a chase run this season being a major issue.
I’d imagine bookmakers will try to take him on come Friday morning but do not worry.