The big race on the opening day of the festival is the Racing Post Novice Chase over two miles one furlong where Arkle second favourite Avrika Ligeonniere ([1.84]) is a deservedly short favourite in a five runner race.
The Willie Mullins trained horse took the Grade 1 Drinmore over two-and-a-half miles at Fairyhouse at the start of the month by beating a solid field by 11 lengths. He made all that day and according to the official record he led by as much as 20 lengths. If a handicapper had run a race like that I would expect him to be moving up in distance but his trainer thinks he will be better over the shorter distance. If so it could be a sign of a top class horse and the [8.0] about him for the Arkle looks very appealing.
His main rival is Oscars Well ([2.7]) who ran well in a number of Grade 1 hurdles last year without ever really threatening to win. He is two from three over fences with the one miss an early fall at Naas in November.
On Thursday the Grade 1 Dial-A-Bet Chase looks to be Sizing Europe's for the taking as he has shortened to [1.5] now that trainer Henry de Bromehead has confirmed that he would be avoiding the tougher targets that the King George and Lexus would have represented.
Sizing Europe looked as good as ever when beating Magnanimity by 20 lengths at Clonmel in November, and he would have to be as just as good here to justify his short price as there is a solid field of contenders lined up behind him.
One of those contenders is the consistent Big Zeb ([14.0]) who has won this race in three of the last four years. He will be facing Sizing Europe for the eight time and currently trails 5-2 in the head to head.
Realt Dubh ([10.0]) would have a chance if he could return to his pre-Cheltenham form but his only good run in six was in a slowly-run race behind Sizing Europe. My choice would be to give Rubi Light ([7.0]) another chance after I picked him in the John Durkan. He wasn't able to cope with Flemenstar that day but I've been waiting for him to drop in distance and expect it to help him to produce his best.
Friday is highlighted by the biggest race of the week, the Lexus Chase, which sees the eagerly awaited rematch between likely Gold Cup contenders Flemenstar ([2.46]) and Sir Des Champs ([4.4]). The two met earlier in the month in the John Durkan at Punchestown when the former came out on top as a comfortable winner by five lengths.
The theory going into that race was that Flemenstar had everything to his advantage. Firstly he had race fitness on his side having made a spectacular seasonal debut when routing Big Zeb by seven lengths in the Fortria Chase at Navan. Secondly he was expected to be favoured at the two-and-a-half mile distance whereas Sir Des Champs would appreciate a greater test of stamina. However by making all, and in a fast time, he deserves the benefit of the doubt until someone ends his winning streak which stands at seven.
Others to consider are Tidal Bay ([6.2]) who carried top weight to an impressive second in the Hennessy and Hidden Cyclone ([8.2]) who appears to be a very good horse that is just short of the best.
Rounding out the Festival on Saturday we have the Istabraq Hurdle where Hurricane Fly at [1.35] is the hot favourite as he looks to add to his total of 12 Grade 1 hurdles.
It was business as usual when he defeated Captain Cee Bee by 12 lengths in the Morgiana Hurdle on his reappearance. He has produced three years of excellent hurdling with one uncharacteristically flat performance coming at the worst time when he finished third in last year's Champion Hurdle. He is available at [6.2] to regain his crown in March and that looks to be good price at the current time.
His two main rivals are last year's winner Unnacompanied [5.2] and Triumph Hurdle winner Countrywide Flame [5.6].
The former has had only seven races over fences so there may be more to come but it looks like he would need to find Hurricane Fly far below his best to be in with a chance. Countrywide Flame on the other hand beat the Supreme Novices winner Cinders And Ashes by 12 lengths in the Fighting Firth at the start of the month. He has a lot more potential to provide an upset, though he may miss this race in favour of the Christmas Hurdle at Kempton.