THE run up to the Cheltenham Festival in mid-March is the most exciting time of the year for jump racing fans.

The Festival is now just five weeks away and this is the time that many of the leading contenders are having their final race before the big day.

During the year, and particularly as we approach Cheltenham, many of the big names have been kept apart to preserve their lofty reputations. There is always a good natured battle between the British and the Irish at Cheltenham, and with most horses racing at home up till this point in the year, there are parallel lines of form in Britain and Ireland. Over the next few weeks there will be much debate over which form is stronger!

Last weekend the Champion Hurdle favourite and twice winner of the race, the English Buveur D’Air, was an easy winner of his prep race at Sandown. Meanwhile, over at Leopardstown the new Dublin Racing Festival also took place. The superstar Irish mare Apples Jade, thought to be at her best over a longer trip, took the Irish Champion Hurdle in such breath-taking style that she is now vying for favouritism with the Nicky Henderson trained Buveur D’Air at Cheltenham.

The fear was that Apples Jade would find Saturday’s race too short and the ground too fast, and that she would bypass the tough Champion Hurdle for the easier mare’s only race at Cheltenham. However, she comprehensively proved herself the best hurdler in Ireland over any trip, and she has earned her place in the ‘big one’ at Cheltenham. This is the battle everyone wants to see and is great news for racing.

The Cheltenham Gold Cup, this year sponsored by Magners, is becoming an increasingly interesting race. The current favourite is something of an unknown quantity. The Irish trained Presenting Percy won the RSA Chase, the champion novice chase over the Gold Cup distance, at last year’s Festival meeting in scintillating style. His first run since was an easy win over hurdles at Gowran Park, and he is expected to return to that course on 16th February for the Red Mills Chase which he won last year on his way to Cheltenham.

In the Irish Gold Cup on Saturday the Irish horse Bellshill staked his claim, jumping brilliantly and just outbattling fellow Cheltenham contender Road to Respect. However, a couple of the fancied horses for this race, including rising star Kemboy and 2017 Gold Cup winner Sizing John missed the race due to the quick ground so the form is not as strong as it could be.

Most of the other leading contenders are still to have one more race before March. This coming Saturday at Newbury we’re likely to see last year’s winner and previous Coral Welsh Grand National hero Native River take on the King George winner Clan des Obeaux. 2015 Gold Cup winner Coneygree also features among the entries.

2017 King George winner Might Bite, narrowly beaten in an epic battle with Native River last year, is expected to go straight to Cheltenham having had a minor breathing operation since disappointing in this season’s King George. The resurgent Thistlecrack, another Chepstow winner, is expected to go straight to Cheltenham too.

This year’s Coral Welsh National winner Elegant Escape did his Gold Cup claims no harm when he finished a narrow second in the Cotswold Chase a fortnight ago behind the popular Paul Nicholls trained Frodon, whose stamina is a slight concern for the extra quarter of a mile of the Gold Cup. With so many horses with strong claims, it promises to be one of the most hotly contested Gold Cups for years.

We’ll be holding our popular annual Cheltenham Gold Cup Lunch on Friday 15th March, when we’ll show all the action from Gold Cup Day on the TV screens in our View Restaurant. We’ll serve a three course lunch and an afternoon tea, and there will be a bar and betting facilities plus tipping and a charity auction. It gets very crowded at Cheltenham and this is a very pleasant way of enjoying the afternoon! Tickets are on sale now at £45 per person.

Unfortunately, last week was not a good one for racing and we, like several other tracks, lost a race meeting to the cold snap. Thankfully the weather is warming up and our next meeting is Six Nations Raceday on Saturday 23rd February when we’ll be showing the France v Scotland and the Wales v England matches alongside the racing.