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January and February are always exciting months for horse racing fans in the British Isles. The jumps racing fixtures come thick and fast (weather permitting, of course). But while there are some great events and top-class races, it’s all a warm-up act. There is one event on the minds of trainers, jockeys, fans and punters – The Cheltenham Festival.

That has remained the case in 2021, despite the restrictions on fan attendances at racecourses across the UK and Ireland. The show must go on, and there is a palpable sense of excitement over this year’s event. The four-day racing extravaganza will take place from 16th-19th March at the iconic Cheltenham Racecourse. But who are the horses making the headlines in the lead up to the festival, the so-called road to Cheltenham? Below we pick out five names who are likely to be on everyone’s lips before, during and after the 2021 Cheltenham Festival:

Al Boum Photo

History beckons for this nine-year-old trained by Willie Mullins. Al Boum Photo won the Gold Cup – the most prestigious of Cheltenham’s 28 races – in 2019 and 2020, and he is favourite to win a third in 2021. Such a feat will put him on a par with modern greats like Best Mate and past heroes like the legendary Arkle. It’s a tall order, of course, but Mullins is arguably the greatest jumps racing trainer of this century, and he has used Al Boum Photo both wisely and sparingly. Team Mullins is gunning for this historic hat-trick, and few will be surprised if they pull it off.

Tiger Roll

Tiger Roll is most associated with Aintree and the Grand National, of course. But he also boasts a fine record at Cheltenham, winning four races down the years. At 11-years-old, he is considered a veteran, but he is also a once-in-a-generation type of horse who has delighted fans down the years. He isn’t the favourite for his race, the Cross Country Chase. But his trainer, Gordon Elliott, will just be hoping that he comes through unscathed, and then they can turn their attention to the Grand National a month later.

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From two horses who will go down as modern greats regardless of what happens at this year’s Cheltenham Festival, we now switch to a horse trying to build a legacy. Shishkin already has a big win at Cheltenham under his belt, winning the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle last year. He has since switched to chasing, winning both his contests over fences so far. He is a massive favourite – perhaps the biggest lock of the festival – for the Arkle on Day 1.

Benie Des Dieux

A new race has been added to this year’s festival – the Mares’ Chase. It takes place on the final day, right after the Gold Cup, so there is always the chance it feels a bit flat. Nevertheless, there are some intriguing names lined up for the race, including Benie Des Dieux. The mare has always been considered one of the best in the business, but she is prone to making mistakes that have cost her a couple of big wins at Cheltenham. However, she can provide the spark here to make the Mares’ Chase feel like it belongs at Britain’s most popular racing festival.

Paisley Park and Thyme Hill

We are cheating here somewhat by listing two horses, but it is there burgeoning rivalry that is catching the eye rather than individual exploits. On one side, we have Paisley Park, two-time Cheltenham winner and biggest name in long-distance hurdling. On the other, there is Thyme Hill, the upstart challenger in pursuit of a first big win at the Cheltenham Festival. The pair has traded wins this season, each beating the other by just a neck. They will square off in what should be a thrilling Stayers’ Hurdle on 18th March.

You can find this event and more in our Events Calendar! Cheltenham Festival in the EIE Calendar of Events.

You can read more articles in our section on Horse Racing.

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