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It’s that time of the year again, when hundreds of thousands of racing enthusiasts head through the gates at Prestbury Park for the Cheltenham Festival. With a few of the big names of recent years missing — the likes of Kauto Star and Big Buck’s are absent — there are plenty of wide open races.

Our guide looks at the leading contenders for the major races and picks out some Festival ones to watch.

Gold Cup

Nicky Henderson, the most successful trainer in Festival history, expects to field around 35 horses at Cheltenham this year. One of his leading challengers is Bobs Worth, the ante-post favourite in the 2013 Gold Cup betting. This solid performer won the 2012 RSA Chase at Cheltenham and the Grade 3 Hennessy Gold Cup in December and leads a talented field including past victor Long Run.

Winner in 2011 and third last year, eight-year-old Long Run has a great chance again. He proved he still has what it takes by winning the King George VI Chase at Kempton Park on Boxing Day and should be a challenger.

Sir Des Champs has won at the Festival for each of the last two years and is going for the hat-trick in 2013. While he wasn’t impressive in his first two outings of the season he returned to winning ways in the Irish Hennessy Gold Cup when beating Flemenstar.

While he may never have won at Cheltenham, the Paul Nicholls-trained Silviniaco Conti has developed superbly this season by winning the Charlie Hall, Betfair and Denman Chases. Unbeaten this campaign, this seven-year-old could be the true heir to Kauto Star’s crown.

If you’re looking for an outsider then the David Bridgwater-trained The Giant Bolster could be the one to watch. He ran a great race 12 months ago when runner-up to Synchronised and loves Cheltenham. Over the past year or two he has eliminated the jumping errors that plagued him earlier in his career and arrives at the Festival in arguably better form than last term.

Triumph Hurdle

Friday’s first race is the Triumph Hurdle and the Irish runner Our Conor is one of the standout bets of the Festival. While Irish runners may have only won this race twice in the past 20 years, this Dessie Hughes trained four-year-old is unbeaten in three races over hurdles.

“He has been brilliant from the first day he schooled over hurdles,” Hughes said. “He coughed in December, which is why he missed running over Christmas. But he has done very well since his last win. I couldn’t be happier.”

Rolling Star and Far West are Our Conor’s two main rivals for this race.

Champion Hurdle

Hurricane Fly is the clear favourite for the Champion Hurdle after winning the Irish equivalent. The 2011 winner has been described as “back to his very best” by trainer Willie Mullins and joins last year’s winner Rock on Ruby in the 2013 field.

Another previous winner that lines up in this race is 2010 champ Binocular. Trainer Nicky Henderson has been talking up the chances of the nine-year-old ahead of this year’s Festival, despite finishing a distant third behind Hurricane Fly in this year’s Irish Champion Hurdle.

Henderson said: “There were mutterings after Ireland that he had not had a hard race but it was hard enough and he has come on an awful lot. He jumped some hurdles the other day and was electric — that’s a barometer with him. You don’t have to take his temperature or test his blood.

“A lot of things have conspired against him over the years. He has been a horse maligned and undermined.”

Stablemate Grandouet and the talented Zarkandar pose the biggest threat to the previous winners.

Queen Mother Champion Chase

The odds-on favourite for this race is the Nicky Henderson-trained Sprinter Sacre — a winner on all of his seven starts over fences. This horse has the potential to be a Cheltenham great, and barring a fall, it’s hard to see where a challenge will come from.

His stablemate Finian’s Rainbow was a deserved winner of this event last year, but his form and the chances of a major rival look set to deny him a second win. Finian’s Rainbow has finished last on both his runs this season, including the recent Ascot Chase, and Henderson told the Daily Mail: “I’m the first to admit things have not gone Finian’s way. I can only conclude it’s down to the ground.”

World Hurdle

It will be strange to see a World Hurdle without the injured Big Buck’s in the line-up. Four consecutive wins for the Paul Nicholls-trained gelding means that no-one has had a look in since 2008 and it’s a wide open field this year.

Smad Place has won three times on good to soft ground and put in an excellent performance when finishing third in this race in 2012. He also finished second to World Hurdle rival Reve De Sivola at Ascot in December.

Shocks are rare in this event and I like the chances of the Irish horse Monksland. There will be plenty of backing for Nicky Henderson’s Oscar Whisky, but bear in mind he did look to be struggling to stay in last year’s race.

Other tips

The Festival gets under way on Tuesday (12 March) with the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle and trainer Jessica Harrington has high hopes for Jezki. She said: “What particularly pleases me about his preparation isn’t that he remains unbeaten, which of course he is, but the experience he has gained from those races as you can’t go to the Cheltenham Festival with a horse who only has limited experience.

“It is exciting to have such a good horse to take to Cheltenham again and I couldn’t be happier with how he is at the moment.”

Nicky Henderson’s My Tent Or Yours is the favourite for this race.

Alan King’s Raya Star looks a great bet for Friday’s (15 March) County Hurdle after winning at Ascot in November. He performed well chasing the talented Zarkandar in the Betfair Hurdle and, while he has been hit by the handicapper, he should go well again. Jessica Harrington’s Irish runner Citizenship is sure to be popular as is Moon Dice.

Two time winner of the Ryanair Chase Albertas Run lines up again this year after finishing second in 2012. Overturn could be one to follow in the Arkle after his recent win at Doncaster while Chapoturgeon looks to be one of the classiest horses in the Foxhunter Chase.