The Cheltenham Festival is upon us once again. Racing fans have been looking forward to the showpiece meeting throughout the winter, eager to see the best horses in Britain and Ireland clash in the championship races.

Last year’s highlight was undoubtedly the superb 19-length victory of Sprinter Sacre in the Champion Chase but he is unable to defend his crown. He was beaten for the first time over fences when pulled up at Kempton in December. An irregular heartbeat was diagnosed and trainer Nicky Henderson has decided to err on the side of caution and put him away until next season.

Another big name missing through injury this year is Ryanair Chase winner Cue Card, winner of the Betfair Chase and second in the King George VI Chase. There are still several returning heroes to look forward to, notably Bobs Worth, Hurricane Fly and Big Buck’s.

The Paddy Power guide looks at the leading contenders for the championship races and provides a few pointers for the rest of the week.

Gold Cup

Nicky Henderson’s Bobs Worth battled his way to victory 12 months ago and is favourite to follow up this year. He was well beaten on his seasonal debut at Haydock but looked back to his best when winning the Lexus Chase in Ireland. He is chasing a fourth consecutive festival victory after the Albert Bartlett (2011), RSA Chase (2012) and Gold Cup (2013).

His main market rival is King George VI Chase winner Silviniaco Conti. The Paul Nicholls-trained runner was going well when falling 3 out in this race last year, before battling on bravely to win at Kempton on Boxing Day. The leading Irish hope is Last Instalment who returned from injury to win the Irish Hennessy Gold Cup at Leopardstown. He runs in the colours of Gigginstown House Stud who won the Gold Cup with War Of Attrition in 2006.

David Bridgwater will be hoping it is a case of third-time lucky for The Giant Bolster. He was runner-up here in 2012 and fourth last year. He won his trial impressively in January, wearing a hood and a visor for the first time, and will do so again in the big race.

Newbury winner Triolo D’Alene and Grand National third Teaforthree will both be hoping to advertise their Aintree claims while Captain Chris has yet to show his best form at this distance. He has also jumped out to his right and lost valuable ground on his most recent visits the course.

Champion Hurdle

Cheltenham actionHurricane Fly is bidding for a third Champion Hurdle victory after successes in 2011 and 2013. Trainer Willie Mullins has a strong team of hurdlers in his care but obviously feels that Hurricane Fly is much the best. He has beaten Our Conor and Jezki twice this season including in the Irish Champion Hurdle which was his 19th Grade 1 victory.

The only question mark against the favourite is whether he can really be as good at the age of 10? If he is, he will become the oldest winner of the Champion Hurdle since Sea Pigeon won at the age of 11 in 1981.

Our Conor was bought by Barry Connell after winning the Triumph Hurdle last year by 15 lengths. He has not won since, but ran his best race of the season when getting within a length and a half of Hurricane Fly last time out.

Arguably the best trial for this race was the Christmas Hurdle at Kempton when My Tent Or Yours just got the better of The New One. Sam Twiston-Davies took the bull by the horns that day and kicked on a long way out on The New One and may have held on but for a blunder at the final flight. Both horses are better held up for a late run and this will be an intriguing tactical affair with a small field likely.

Queen Mother Champion Chase

Nicky Henderson’s decision to withdraw Sprinter Sacre has left this race wide open. His natural successor on all known form is Sire De Grugy, an impressive winner of his last 3 races.

Gary Moore’s popular chestnut won the Tingle Creek at Sandown and the Desert Orchid at Kempton before bolting up at Ascot last time. He revelled in the soft ground that day and established himself as the one to beat in this race. The main doubt about him is that he has been beaten on his previous two visits to Cheltenham, although he has shown much improved form since.

Henderson opposes with Kid Cassidy and Captain Conan, the 2 horses to have beaten the favourite here. Captain Conan is the more consistent of the 2 and ran well when a close fifth in the Jewson Novices’ Chase last year. The leading Irish hope is Arvika Ligeonniere who did not show his best form in the Arkle Chase in March but won easily in Ireland last time out.

World Hurdle

The World Hurdle could be the race of the week with a clash between 4-times winner Big Buck’s and the unbeaten mare Annie Power. Big Buck’s missed the chance to win 5 consecutive titles through injury last year, but reappeared in Cheltenham’s Cleeve Hurdle in January.

Although suffering defeat for the first time in 19 races, Big Buck’s ran with plenty of credit to finish third and was only caught on the run-in by 66-1 outsider Knockara Beau and At Fishers Cross. Tony McCoy has remained faithful to the runner-up who won the Albert Bartlett here last season.

Annie Power is unbeaten in 10 races and runs here in preference to the Champion Hurdle over a mile shorter. She is yet to race over this distance but won over an extended 2 and a half miles from Zarkandar and should see out the trip. Zarkandar is also expected to appreciate the step up to 3 miles and could emerge as a serious threat to the 2 market leaders.

Triumph Hurdle

There has not been an outstanding performance by a juvenile hurdler this season and the bookmakers have found it hard to separate Le Rocher and Calipto. Le Rocher won the trial here impressively last time but does not seem to have a brilliant turn of foot and connections will be hoping the ground is not too quick.

Calipto has won 2 races for Paul Nicholls without being seriously tested and the form received a boost when runner-up Activial won well at Kempton. Guitar Pete was well beaten at Cheltenham in November but dented some lofty reputations when winning in Ireland last time.

Other tips

The Festival gets under way on Tuesday 11 March with the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle and Irving could be the banker of the meeting for many punters. He was brilliant when winning at Kempton on his most recent start and the form of his Ascot victory was boosted by Betfair Hurdle winner Splash Of Ginge.

All eyes will be on Quevega as she goes for an unprecedented sixth straight victory in the David Nicholson Mares’ Hurdle on the same day. Opposition appears to be drying up and she will be the shortest priced favourite of the week.

David Pipe has a number of options for Un Temps Pour Tout including the Neptune Hurdle on Wednesday in which he also runs Red Sherlock. Nicky Henderson is keen on the prospects of Dawalan in the Fred Winter Hurdle and Modus could be the best of the home team in the Champion Bumper.

The Ryanair Chase looks wide open on Thursday but Benefficient has done little wrong this season and looks certain to be in the money. Cause Of Causes has multiple entries during the week and should be noted in his chosen assignment.

The supporting card on Gold Cup day also includes the Albert Bartlett Novices’ Hurdle and there will be some long faces if Kings Palace is beaten. He looks like a real star in the making and has been favourite for this race for several months.