The final countdown is officially on – with only a month to go until the best of the National Hunt field take to Prestbury Park in an action-packed four days.
With many superstars making the trip to the Gloucestershire course, there will be inevitable clashes across the cards.
Here are four showdowns that cannot be missed in this year’s Festival.
Shishkin v Energumene – Arkle Chase
In the second week of March last year, the relatively unknown Energumene impressed on his first start over obstacles after landing a maiden hurdle at Gowran Park.
On the other side of the Irish sea, Shishkin snatched victory by a neck in the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival.
Fast forward 12 months later, and both horses are currently unbeaten over fences and will meet in a mouthwatering clash in the Arkle Chase.
Willie Mullins’ talented runner has rapidly progressed this season, while Nicky Henderson’s gelding has been near-perfect over the larger obstacles this term.
The race has been dominated by the two trainers in recent years, with both Mullins and Henderson winning seven of the last nine renewals.
Shishkin had looked mightily impressive in his transition from hurdles to fences.
But he has yet to face a serious challenge on his three chase starts.
Energumene will be making his first start at Prestbury Park, which is a disadvantage to the seven-year-old as 15 of the last 17 winners of this contest have run at least once at Cheltenham previously.
But it should be noted that the last horse to win this race without a run at the Gloucestershire course was Un De Sceaux back in 2014, who was trained by Mullins.
A clash of two novice heavyweights that could easily go either way.
Epatante v Honeysuckle – Champion Hurdle
Tuesday’s card features another eye-catching face-off, as two supermares go head to head in the feature race of the day.
Henry De Bromhead’s Honeysuckle rose to prominence after stunning Benie Des Dieux in last season’s Mares’ Hurdle.
She extended her unbeaten record under rules to ten races after a storming victory in the Irish edition of this contest.
She faces last year’s Champion Hurdle winner Epatante, who has had mixed fortunes so far this season.
After landing the Fighting Fifth Hurdle in comfortable fashion, Nicky Henderson’s star suffered a shock defeat in the Christmas Hurdle at Kempton.
Evan Williams’ Silver Streak got the better of the three-time Grade 1 winner.
Henderson knows what it takes to win this race, registering eight career successes in this contest.
But even the six-time Champion Trainer admitted that Honeysuckle’s performance at the Dublin Racing Festival was ‘slightly frightening’ among others.
An cracking showdown to look forward to.
Kilcruit v Sir Gerhard – Champion Bumper
The feature flat race of the Festival, a duo of exciting National Hunt prospects meet in the Champion Bumper under two of Ireland’s leading trainers.
Gordon Elliott’s Sir Gerhard had headed the ante-post betting for the contest for most of the season.
The six-year-old scored by 14 lengths on his rules debut in October, before landing the Listed Future Champions Flat Race at Navan before Christmas.
However, Kilcruit made himself known as a serious contender for the race and launched to the top of the betting when storming clear by 12 lengths in the Grade 2 Bumper at the Dublin Racing Festival.
Trainer Willie Mullins stated after: “I haven’t seen a performance like that in a bumper for a long time”.
Both trainers have won this contest twice in the last four runnings, with Elliott winning with Fayonagh and Envoi Allen in 2017 and 2019.
Mullins, meanwhile, saw success with Relegate and Ferny Hollow in 2018 and 2020.
The Closutton-based trainer has seen the most successes in the Champion Bumper, with last year’s victory taking Mullins’ tally to ten wins.
Having said that, the 14-time Irish Champion trainer’s last five victories have come from runners with double-figure prices.
It should be noted that Cheveley Park Stud have won the previous three renewals, and Sir Gerhard could easily make it four.
An interesting showdown to note for Wednesday’s card.
Paisley Park v Thyme Hill – Stayers’ Hurdle
Thursday holds an exciting conclusion to the staying trilogy, staged on the greatest show on turf.
Superstar hurdler Paisley Park takes rising talent Thyme Hill for the third and final time this season, with both aiming to get the better of each other in the Stayers’ Hurdle.
Philip Hobbs’ gelding caused an upset in the Long Distance Hurdle, albeit it in receipt of 3lbs.
Emma Lavelle’s runner, though, bounced back to his best to snatch victory in the Long Distance Hurdle.
The stats are in favour of Paisley Park so far, as 11 of the last 12 winners have had at least eight previous runs over hurdles.
While the three-time Grade 1 winner has 14 runs, including a victory in this contest back in 2019, Thyme Hill had only made six starts over timber.
However, only three nine-year-olds have won this race in the last 32 years.
Paisley Park would be joining the likes of staying greats Inglis Drever and Big Buck’s if he were to land the contest at his age.
This season’s newfound rivalry is one not to be missed.