It’s the second Tuesday in March and it’s St Patrick’s day on Friday, so that can only mean one thing: It’s the start of the legendary Cheltenham Festival !On Monday morning, as the racecourse was battered by blustery winds, many racing fans from Ireland, England, France and Germany were already standing at the gates of national hunt racing’s most famous racecourse, equipped with the best binoculars money can buy. Why ? You might ask. Doesn’t the meeting start on Tuesday ? Yes, it does, but on Monday morning the Irish raiders, including the likes of dual Champion hurdle winner Honeysuckle, as well as Cheltenham Gold Cup winner A Plus Tard, were stretching their legs on the track in preparation of their tasks this week. It is always a great spectacle when the massive string of the Willie Mullins trained horses come out and is much appreciated by the punters who like to get an early glimpse of the horses they are going to back during the week. Talking about the Antonia Devin bred A Plus Tard, who was ridden to perfection by racing’s golden girl Rachael Blackmore in the Boodles Cheltenham Gold Cup last year, he was one of 9 French bred horses to win one of the 28 races at the Cheltenham Festival in 2022, which was a sharp increase from 2021, when “only” four French bred horses made it onto the podium. A Plus Tard will attempt to defend his crown this year and is one of many French bred horses in the spotlight at Cheltenham. Tomorrow’s main event though, the Unibet Champion Hurdle, is all about the Nicky Henderson trained Constitution Hill, who is British bred and who is being hailed as the next superstar. Nicky Henderson has trained 72 Festival winners, which makes him the most successful British trainer at the Festival. In fact, only Ireland’s Willie Mullins has trained more winners and he will be saddling French bred State Man in the Unibet Champion Hurdle. State Man, a son of Doctor Dino and Arret Station who was bred by M.L. Bloodstock Ltd, is like Constitution Hill already a Festival winner after lifting the Grade 3 McCoy Contractors Country Handicap Hurdle race last year. Unbeaten since falling on his first start in Ireland after leaving Daniela Mele to join Willie Mullins, he still has a steep hill to climb if he wants to beat Constitution Hill who has his trainer gushing when he says : “Constitution Hill’s racing game is brilliant. You could go three miles with him because you’d just switch him off and put him to sleep and then wait until you get the right moment and press the button. It really is as simple as that. He is an extraordinary animal!” So the race is on again between the English and the Irish, a friendly rivalry that has been going on as long as anyone can remember. However, this year, for the first time since 2020 when the David Cottin trained Easysland beat dual Grand National hero Tiger Roll by seventeen lengths in the Glenfarclas Cross Country Chase, a couple of French trainers are crossing the Channel in the hope of showing British and Irish racing fans that they too are a force to be reckoned with. Indeed, both Gabriel Leenders and Hugo Merienne, with the help of sponsors Red Mills, have decided to supplement their horses for the Grade 1 Paddy Power Stayers’ Hurdle on Thursday. The Gabriel Leenders trained Gold Tweet has already been around the very demanding track at Cheltenham, where to the surprise of many, he lifted the Grade 2 Cleeve Hurdle at the end of January. Encouraged by his friends’ success, Hugo Merienne decided there and then that he too would supplement Henri le Farceur in this fabulous marathon over hurdles, which was dominated in 2002 and 2003 by the brilliant French bred Baracouda. Trained by François Doumen, who paved the way for French trainers at Cheltenham, Baracouda, a son of Alesso and Peche Aubar, was without doubt one of the best stayers of the century. If Gold Tweet or Henri Le Farceur can follow in his hoof steps, remains to be seen, but as Nicolas de Lageneste, who bred Henri Le Farceur, says : “I think he has a great chance, especially if there is more rain and the ground softens.” And rained it has ! During the night from Sunday to Monday, the Cheltenham racecourse at Prestbury Park, which is nestled below the Cotswolds and Cleeve Hill in the region of Gloucestershire, received 4mm of rain, which changed the going from soft, good to soft in place, to soft. The rain has been welcomed by most trainers and certainly by clerk of the course Jon Pullin, who had only told the media ten days ago that Cheltenham had not received any significant rain since mid-January ! And there could be even more rain on the way, but it won’t deter the many racing fans who have been counting down the days to these four days of exceptional jump racing. Come rain or shine, the Cheltenham racecourse will be buzzing as usual.