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Cheltenham 2017: It's odds on for a thrilling festival of racing

By Charlie Atkin

Although the build-up to this year's Cheltenham festival has been blighted by several high profile absentees, the levels of anticipation it still manages to incite is impressive.

Frankly, it is testament to the festival's inherent appeal that thousands of people, young and old, here and across the Irish Sea, are awaiting next week as a child does Christmas Day.

Day one's feature is the Stan James Champion Hurdle, where the sport's fastest over the smaller obstacles will compete.

The absence of the race's last two winners has left the door open to horses who have been switched from previous targets.

Yanworth, the likely favourite, was first aimed at longer distance hurdle races, while Buveur D'Air aborted a season chasing to line up here. Both will have significant chances but may still be vulnerable to an improving outsider like Brain Power.

Elsewhere on Tuesday Willie Mullins will hope to continue his dominance of several races, including the Sky Bet Supreme Novices' Hurdle and the OLBG Mares' Hurdle. Spectators will also have the opportunity to witness one of the most exciting horses in training, Altior, confirm their lofty reputation.

Such is the enthusiasm for Altior that many are already savouring a clash between him and the imperious Douvan, who is likely to put in a similar performance in Wednesday's feature, the Betway Queen Mother Champion Chase. The unbeaten favourite has earned industry-wide worship, in large part thanks to superlative reviews from connections who aren't short of quality horses.

Wednesday also offers some excellent clashes between the British and Irish novices, as the Neptune Investment Novices' Hurdle sees Neon Wolf and Bacardys fronting the market, while the RSA Chase lies open for a horse from either side of the Irish Sea to prove themselves a future Gold Cup contender.

In the staying hurdle division, Unowhatimeanharry has the form to claim Thursday's feature race. The dominance of Harry Fry's gelding this season has been hard to dispute, although returning winners like Jezki and Cole Harden will feature.

The festival culminates in its most anticipated spectacle of all, the Cheltenham Gold Cup. Despite being the race perhaps most blighted by a high profile absence, it still represents the opportunity for the week's most heart-warming result.

Cue Card has long been recognised as the most popular horse in training and has a chance at redemption that few would have expected. After falling at the third last a year ago, Colin Tizzard's chaser has since lost his King George VI Chase crown but put in a stirring performance last month to reanimate fans. His competition is stern though, nearly sharing favouritism as he is with stablemate Native River and the Mullins-trained Djakadam. There is certainly strength in depth too with Outlander, Sizing John and Minella Rocco all having chances.

Cue Card though is one of the few horses punters would be happy to see win at the expense of a discarded betting slip.

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