Constitution Hill tops bill as Cheltenham arrives
Last updated on .From the section Horse Racing
Last year's winner Honeysuckle goes instead this time in the Mares' Hurdle in what might be her swansong.
Runners face disqualification if jockeys seriously breach contentious new rules on use of the whip.
Much of the talk in the build-up has centred on how riders will adapt to the regulations in the heat of top-level competition.
There is also unpredictability around the weather with a mixed forecast raising the prospect of soft going and throwing the form book with drier conditions into doubt.
On the opening day the focus will be on Nicky Henderson's exciting Constitution Hill, who has won his five previous races by a total of 77 lengths, including last year's opening Supreme Novices' Hurdle.
The cheering sound of the crowd as the first contest gets under way has become so iconic that course owners, the Jockey Club, have turned it into a techno dance track called 'Roar Remix' featuring DJ Cuddles.
It is the first of 28 races at a meeting which is worth an estimated £274m to the local economy, according to a report by the University of Gloucestershire.
The meeting concludes on Friday where Gold Cup runners will include the winners of the Irish Gold Cup, King George VI Chase and Grand National in Galopin Des Champs, Bravemansgame and Noble Yeats.
Very, very good. The six-year-old has been breathtaking in his five previous runs under jockey Nico de Boinville.
Likely to go off the hottest favourite of the week, bookmaker William Hill has even changed the branding on its Cheltenham shops to Constitution Hill.
Irish Champion Hurdle winner State Man and stablemate Vauban are next in the betting for the Festival's leading trainer Willie Mullins.
Constitution Hill is one of few English-trained favourites in a week which has been dominated by the Irish in recent years.
Trainer Henderson, seeking a record-extending ninth win in the Champion Hurdle, is trying to keep a lid on the expectation.
"Constitution Hill is doing freakish things, but he's only had five runs in his life and you have to remember it is very early days in his career," he said.
What are the new whip rules?
• None Explainer: All you need to know about the new whip rules
Rules introduced last month reduce the number of times the whip is permitted by one, to seven in jumps races and six in flat races.
Jockeys face suspension for going above that limit and their horse disqualified if they go four or more over the threshold.
Bans are doubled if the offence takes place in Class 1 and 2 races.
Some riders have struggled to adapt and believe policing of the changes has been draconian, while Irish jockeys who also compete in Britain have a different set of rules in their homeland.
Potential offences are now referred to the Whip Review Committee, rather than dealt with by racecourse stewards on the day.
The committee also looks at other matters including the force used, whether it was used from above shoulder height, and the time given for a horse to respond.
All bets by punters will stand on the day, with any breaches - and potential disqualifications - not dealt with until the following week.
Rachael Blackmore has been clocking up the landmarks, becoming the first woman to ride the Gold Cup winner when triumphant on A Plus Tard 12 months ago.
A year earlier, she was the first female to be the week's leading rider before going on to claim another historic triumph on Minella Times in the Grand National.
Blackmore is set to be aboard A Plus Tard again in Friday's Gold Cup, while trainer Henry de Bromhead will also saddle 2021 winner Minella Indo.
It will be a poignant week for De Bromhead with Thursday's mares' novices hurdle named in honour of his 13-year-old son Jack, who died in a riding accident last year.
De Bromhead and Blackmore will hope Honeysuckle, who has won 16 of her 18 races, can claim her third Festival triumph on Tuesday.
One jockey who did not expect to be competing again at Cheltenham is 43-year-old Davy Russell, who retired in December but has returned to the saddle to help trainer Gordon Elliott after Jack Kennedy suffered a broken leg.
Champion Chase, Wednesday: Last year's winner Energumene runs in the blue-and-white colours of owner Tony Bloom, chairman of Brighton and Hove Albion, while Editeur Du Gite carries the red, white and blue favoured by the Crystal Palace-supporting Preston family. The 2022 Arkle Chase victor Edwardstone is another leading contender.
Ryanair Chase, Thursday: Favourite Shishkin was diagnosed with a rare bone condition after he was pulled up in last year's Champion Chase, when a 10-race unbeaten run came to an end, but he bounced back to form with victory at Ascot last month for Henderson.
Stayers' Hurdle, Thursday: Flooring Porter and his boisterous band of supporters are seeking a hat-trick after victories in 2021 and 2022. The 2019 winner Paisley Park, who runs for blind owner Andrew Gemmell, looks to regain his title after twice finishing third in the race.
Gold Cup, Friday: Along with last year's first two, the third-placed Protektorat is also expected to line up. Ahoy Senor would be the first Scottish-trained winner, while John 'Shark Hanlon' seeks victory with £800 bargain buy Hewick. "It'd be a great story to win it, wouldn't it?" he said.
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