No build up to the Cheltenham Festival would be complete without a mention to the Irish. For one week each year, a small corner of the Cotswolds becomes something of a 'Mecca' for thousands of racing fans from the Emerald Isle as they make the pilgrimage to Prestbury Park for four days of merriment with some great jumps racing thrown in for good measure.
With some bookmakers taking bets on the number of pints of Guinness sold at Cheltenham Racecourse between Tuesday 12th and Friday 15th March, we could preview where the value lies in that particular market. However, with 230,000 glasses of 'the black stuff' being sunk at last year's meeting, we're happy to stick to the form book we know about and leave the drinking to toast the winners or drown the sorrows.
As always, Ireland's leading National Hunt trainers will be making the short trip across the Irish Sea, armed with the best runners they have at their disposal, in a bid to win some of the sport's most prestigious prizes.
Since the Festival expanded to four days in 2005, Ireland has averaged eight winners across the 27 races each year and it is that figure that bookmakers are expecting the Irish trained horses to hit in 2013.
William Hill are offering odds of 11/8 that there will be nine or more Irish trained winners at this year's Festival, with between six and eight an 11/10 shot and five under priced at 4/1. Blue Square meanwhile offer 15/8 about nine or more winners, the same price about exactly eight or nine wins for the Ireland with seven or fewer winners from across the water an 11/8 chance.
Number of Irish Winners
Here are 10 leading contenders from across the water that will have 'Irish eyes smiling' and the bookies running for cover if they live up to expectation at the Cheltenham Festival.
Jezki (Supreme Novices)
The Jessica Harrington trained Jezki has been a leading contender in the Supreme Novices Hurdle since winning three races in the space of one month following the transition from bumper to hurdler in October. A Grade One success at Fairyhouse in December was what really made the bookies take note together with a six length victory in the Future Champions Novice Hurdle at Leopardstown's Christmas meeting.
For a long time, the five year old was the market leader for the Festival's 'curtain raiser' until My Tent Or Yours recently overtook him at the head of affairs. A horse with plenty of ability, it would be no surprise to see Jezki give Ireland the best possible start to the 2013 Cheltenham Festival.
Hurricane Fly (Champion Hurdle)
Winner of the Champion Hurdle in 2011, Hurricane Fly was the 4/6 favourite to make it back-to-back victories 12 months ago before managing to finish only third. Four races back in Ireland since that flop at Cheltenham has seen the Willie Mullins trained nine year old pick up a four wins on the bounce and heads to this year's Champion Hurdle as the one to beat again. The fact that doubts still remain over 2012's performance is reflected in the 15/8 quote about him winning the race for a second time but there is no doubt that it is something he's more than capable of.
Arabella Boy & Outlaw Pete (Cross Country Chase)
When Balthazar King won the 2012 Cross Country Chase, it was the first time that a horse not trained in Ireland had won the race since it was introduced to the Festival in 2005. Enda Bolger has accounted for four of those seven wins and Arabella Boy looks the kind that could see the County Limerick trainer bounce back this time around and he is currently the joint-favourite for the race alongside Outlaw Pete from the yard of Bolger's fellow countryman, John Halley, who won the Cross Country Chase at Cheltenham's International meeting back in December.
Both Arabella Boy and Outlaw Pete must be regarded as boasting great chances of making it eight wins in nine years for the Irish in the Cross Country Chase.
Quevega (Mares Hurdle)
All eyes will be on Quevega at 4:40 on the first day of Cheltenham 2013 as the nine year old looks to win the Mares Hurdle for a fifth successive year. Odds of 8/15 reflect the chances of the Willie Mullins trained runner re-writing the Festival's history books and a winner for the Irish and as such, she has to rate the "banker" of all Irish Raiders at this year's meeting.
Boston Bob (National Hunt Chase or RSA Chase)
In six starts over obstacles, Boston Bob has won five and finished runner up on the other occasion. As a novice hurdler last season, the Willie Mullins trained eight year old was an impressive winner of three races in Ireland before heading to the Cheltenham Festival where he came unstuck against the late Brindisi Breeze in the Albert Bartlett, finishing two lengths behind Lucinda Russell's winner when the 6/5 favourite. That was his final outing over hurdles and he was put away ahead of a campaign as a novice chaser this term.
Boston Bob has had two starts over fences and won both, including a Grade One at Leopardstown last time out. With entries in the Jewson Novices Chase, RSA Chase and National Hunt Chase, it is obvious connections are undecided on where he will end up at the Festival but his versatility is not in question and whichever event he lines up in, he has to be considered as a serious contender and is certainly one of Ireland's leading hopes.
Pont Alexandre (Neptune Novices Hurdle)
Yet another inmate from the Willie Mullins yard, Pont Alexandre looks a very exciting prospect after three victories from three starts with a cumulative winning distance of 29 lengths!
As 5/2 favourite for the Neptune Novices Hurdle, it looks like the two mile five furlong contest will be his preferred race at Cheltenham and with nothing to question about the five year old other than where the upward curve will stop, he looks a real threat to all on comers and one for the future at the same time.
Golantilla (Champion Bumper)
Irish trained runners have won 12 of the last 16 renewals of the Champion Bumper and the favourite for this year's race looks very much capable of extending that dominance. The Tony Martin trained Golantilla has won both his bumpers so far this season in style and as is always the case with so little form to go on, much depends on word of mouth for this race and there's little to suggest that this five year shouldn't be capable of making it a hat-trick of victories at Prestbury Park in the final race on day two.
Our Conor (Triumph Hurdle)
The Dessie Hughes trained Our Conor was running on the flat in Ireland last season where he produced nothing more than modest efforts in handicap company when never running beyond one mile one furlong. However, he looked anything but modest on his hurdles debut at Navan in November, where he eased to an eight and a half length victory. A Grade Three victory at Fairyhouse came next followed by a five length Grade One triumph at Leopardstown in February, upon which his odds to win the Triumph Hurdle crashed from 14/1 in to the 4/1 favourite for the race.
Another youngster from across the Irish Sea who is on the upgrade, Our Conor could be anything but whilst he remains unexposed, he stands every chance of adding to the tally of winners from the Emerald Isle.
Salsify (Foxhunters Chase)
Winner of the Foxhunter Chase at last year's Cheltenham Festival, the Rodger Sweeney trained Salsify is bidding to become the first back-to-back winner of the race since Double Silk in 1994. In five runs since his win 12 months ago, the eight year old has won twice, finished second twice and fallen once. Victory in the Memorial Hunters Chase at Leopardsown a few weeks ago (the same race he won en route to Festival glory last March) showed he was in good form and is favourite to make it two from two at Prestbury Park.
Sir Des Champs (Gold Cup)
The last Irish trained winner of the Cheltenham Gold Cup was back in 2006 when War Of Attrition won the race for Mouse Morris in the hands of Conor O'Dwyer for Gigginstown House Stud and it is the same owners who will be hoping that Sir Des Champs can end the seven drought for victory in National Hunt Racing's most prestigious race.
Since winning the Jewson Novices' Chase at last year's festival, the Willie Mullins trained seven year old has been at the head of the Gold Cup ante post betting and there's been little evidence to suggest that he is not up to the task. Excuses about the trip being too short when he finishing second to Flemenstar in the John Durkan Chase at Punchestown and a few questionable jumps can be citied as the reason for defeat in the Lexus Chase, both in December but doubters were silenced when he looked very much back to his best when landing the Irish Hennessy at Leopardstown last month.
Bobs Worth certainly sets a high standard in this year's Gold Cup but his lack of prep run has raised concerns amongst some, whilst that is not the case with Sir Des Champs who heads to the Cheltenham Festival with every chance of ending Ireland's wait for Gold Cup glory.