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Four races to watch at the Cheltenham Festival

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London (AFP)

The annual battle for National Hunt racing supremacy between Ireland and England at the sport's most prestigious meeting, the Cheltenham Festival, gets underway on Tuesday in southwest England.

Here, AFP Sport takes a look at four races to watch in the biggest betting week of the year in the United Kingdom and Ireland with an estimated £300 million ($390 million) to be wagered:

Champion Hurdle

Tuesday

-- A new champion will be crowned this year due to last year's winner Espoir D'Allen's death.

However, the same owner's colours, those of Irish businessman JP McManus, could well be returning to the winner's enclosure in the shape of Epatante.

Her trainer Nicky Henderson has four entries, but the 69-year-old English handler believes Epatante carries his best hopes of a record-extending eighth win in the race.

"Epatante is surely the one," said Henderson.

There are plenty of dangers, with perhaps the most threatening coming from Irish raider Supasundae trained by Jessica Harrington.

Adding extra spice to the contest is the fact that the 73-year-old stays with Henderson for the week.

"I should maybe kick about three of them in the shins when I'm there!" Harrington joked.

Champion Chase

Wednesday

-- Henderson's hopes of a record-breaking sixth win in the two-mile chase are in the balance after the news on Sunday that two-time defending champion Altior is lame.

If he is a non-runner then it looks like a battle between Chacun Pour Soi and Defi du Seuil.

The former bids to finally deliver one of the few trophies to have eluded Irish training great Willie Mullins.

The 63-year-old has 65 Festival winners going into this year's renewal and generates an air of confidence that Chacun Pour Soi can beat Defi du Seuil, like he did at Punchestown last year.

"He's classy and we're hoping he will be up to the task he is facing."

Defi du Seuil, though, represents a formidable rival bidding for a third successive win at the Festival and with three prestigious victories under his belt this term.

"If he beats both horses (Altior and Chacun Pour Soi) it would elevate his status if that happened," said his trainer Philip Hobbs, who won the race back in 2002.

Cross Country Race

Wednesday

-- Principal interest is that Tiger Roll returns as his prep race for his bid to win an unprecedented third successive Grand National.

Red Rum won three but not in consecutive years.

Tiger Roll's owner, Ryanair chief Michael O'Leary, has moaned about his horse's weight for the National but another impressive win in this unusual race would probably give him no choice but to go to Aintree.

His trainer Gordon Elliott is confident coming into the week after his last piece of serious work. "I was delighted with him," said the Irishman.

An interesting opponent is the Mullins-trained Pleasant Company who lost out to Tiger Roll in a photo finish for the 2018 Grand National.

Cheltenham Gold Cup

Friday

-- The week climaxes with what is considered the blue riband of jump racing.

Mullins finally won it, after saddling the runner-up on six occasions, last year with Al Boum Photo and he returns to defend his crown.

He is statistically up against it as the last horse to enjoy repeat successes was three-time winner Best Mate (2002/03/04).

"With age and experience he should improve but, statistically, Gold Cup winners find it hard to go back and win, and that's against him," said Mullins.

"But, if normal improvement with age does come, then he has a fantastic chance."

The best home hopes lie with Paul Nicholls' Clan des Obeaux -- part owned by former Manchester United manager Alex Ferguson -- who if successful would give his trainer a record-equalling fifth win in the race.

Just fifth last year, Nicholls is confident he is in better shape this time.

"He is very effective when he is very fit and very fresh -- I think he is lethal on those terms," said Nicholls.

"I think he is my best chance of the week."

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