The main course is served on Friday afternoon as the Cheltenham Gold Cup takes centre stage and the 2019 renewal is set to be a wide-open cracker.
Willie Mullins bids to end his heartache of six runner-up finishes by launching a four-pronged attack, while Paul Nicholls has high hopes that his King George winner Clan Des Obeaux (11/2) can end a decade-long wait since Kauto Star brought his Blue Riband success to Team Ditcheat.
Then we can throw the defending champion into the mix, with conditions and this unique test very much playing to the strengths of Colin Tizzard’s Native River (5/1), who returns to defend a crown he won with immense power and determination a year ago.
He beat Might Bite that afternoon although the Nicky Henderson runner has a season of ill-fate to try and put behind him now in bidding to go one better. The conundrum in the Gold Cup field is, of course, dual Festival winner Presenting Percy.
He became ante-post favourite for this after his scorching RSA Chase win last March but, remarkably, he hasn’t jumped a fence in public since. It will be a training performance for the ages should Pat Kelly’s star carry Davy Russell to another Cheltenham success.
The Gold Cup looks sure to be a pulsating affair and, unlike the duel of 12 months ago, there are a host of chances.
The Friday afternoon action begins with the Triumph Hurdle, where the Joseph O’Brien-trained Sir Erec is a red-hot favourite (5/4) to deliver on his status as Ireland’s ‘banker’ of the meeting.
Immediately before the Gold Cup, the Albert Bartlett can be billed as an Anglo/Irish showdown. Rebecca Curtis, who has won this race with At Fisher’s Cross, has the hugely promising Lisnagar Oscar, while Nicky Henderson’s Birchdale is exciting and unbeaten so far over timber (6/1).
Gordon Elliott’s Festival took a while to ignite but has once more lit up as the week draws on and his Commander Of Fleet (15/2) looks a powerful stayer in the making, with Rhinestone for O’Brien adding substance to the Irish challenge. The quartet should ensure this battle is fearsome.
In the Foxhunters (4.10pm), twice winner Pacha Du Polder (20/1) has a big fight on to make it three in a row, with strong challengers like Ucello Conti, Stand Up And Fight and the prolific winner Hazel Hill gunning for the crown.
The scene is set for a fabulous final day at Cheltenham 2019, while punters already appear to be planning for the ‘get out’ stakes late in the afternoon, with the Paul Nicholls-trained Magic Saint (7/2 – Grand Annual) and Gordon Elliott’s Dallas Des Pictons (3/1 for Martin Pipe) proving very popular in the betting markets for the final two races.