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Cheltenham - Racing: Five Festival duels to relish

The Cheltenham Festival is within touching distance now, so close we can almost anticipate that famous Cotswolds roar going up.

The action gets underway with the Supreme Novices' Hurdle at 13:30 on Tuesday afternoon and there are 28 races across four days to savour at Prestbury Park.

Mercifully, there's no such thing as a 'two-horse-race' at the Cheltenham Festival but there are nonetheless some mouthwatering duels to look forward to this week.

Here we look at five of those clashes ahead of the biggest week in the jumps racing calendar.

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Constitution Hill vs. Jonbon - Supreme Novices' Hurdle - Tuesday 13:30

The opening race of The Festival and it's a Seven Barrows showdown as unbeaten duo Constitution Hill and Jonbon draw swords for iconic trainer Nicky Henderson.

While Willie Mullins elects to split his hand with Ballymore-bound Sir Gerhard and Dysart Dynamo, Henderson is pitching the two most exciting novices' in Britain together.

They are a very different pair, though also very exciting. Jonbon came with all the fanfare. He's a brother to Douvan and cost owner JP McManus 570,000 gns after winning his point-to-point. He's won a bumper and three hurdles races without issue but there have been quibbles in the background.

He looks buzzy. He's too keen in his races. He hasn't beaten much. So moan the naysayers. The fact is, he has done everything that's been asked of him, with plenty to spare.

Constitution Hill hasn't had the circus-feel around him - he even went off second-favourite on hurdles bow in December at Sandown. He battered his opposition there and he did it again in the Grade 1 Tolworth in January. Some will query what Tolworth winners achieve in a Supreme, but both Noland and Summerville Boy have won it and bagged this prize since 2006.

These two Nicky Henderson inmates haven't made a wrong move so far, it's Constitution Hill at 9/4 and Jonbon at 9/2 and, even as early as race one, Britain really needs one of them to be the Supreme winner or it could be a long week.

Shishkin vs. Energumene - Queen Mother Champion Chase - Wednesday 15:30

Seconds out, round two! There's just no doubting that Shishkin vs. Energumene in the Clarence House at Ascot in January was the race of the season so far. It captured the imagination in the week leading up and it delivered in style as Nicky Henderson's star chaser got up in the final furlong to deny front-runner Energumene for Willie Mullins.

As with any Grade 1 at this distance, it was run at break-neck pace and Shishkin so very nearly came a cropper in the back straight when he knuckled on landing. To his credit, then, he battled back from adversity and won out.

It was a stunning spectacle on the day and all minds were immediately focused on Round II in the Cotswolds.

A length split them at Ascot - it's far from insurmountable that 7/2 Energumene can turn that around but dual Festival winner Shishkin fully merits top billing at 10/11.

On a different track, they go left-handed this time and have a furlong less to run, but that tiring Cheltenham hill to face before glory awaits. Like all good fights, the sequel has major attraction and is just as hard to call as the first scrap.

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Facile Vega vs. American Mile - Champion Bumper - Wednesday 17:30

There's an inherent danger in reducing the Cheltenham Champion Bumper to a duel but it's hard not to get drawn to that sort of conclusion.

Facile Vega - son of the Cheltenham legend that is Quevega - was well-touted by Patrick Mullins ahead of his debut at Christmas and he duly sauntered to victory at Leopardstown.

At the Dublin Racing Festival last month, Facile Vega faced what looked a far stronger field on paper and he blitzed clear of them in the home straight in imperious style.

The plaudits came thick and fast, with legendary trainer and pundit Ted Walsh labelling it the 'best bumper performance' he'd witnessed in his lifetime.

With Willie Mullins already having won 11 renewals of the bumper, surely this is now academic, right? Not so, as Facile Vega has now come back to be 11/8 in the betting.

Step forward 5/2 American Mike for Gordon Elliott. The once-race point-to-point winner has won bumpers at Down Royal and Navan by a combined 24-lengths and, before Christmas, he was the horse many people thought would be destined to win this race.

Elliott has made clear he fully expects to rattle Facile Vega, while Cheltenham legend Jamie Codd is also exuding confidence that his mount is no support act. It's going to be quite the footnote on day two.

Bob Olinger vs. Galopin Des Champs - Turners Novices' Chase - Thursday 13:30

If the end on Wednesday is special, then don't go missing the start on Thursday as the Turners Novices' Chase might just be duel of all duels in Cheltenham this year.

Bob Olinger won the Ballymore last March for Henry De Bromhead and Rachael Blackmore in ultra-fine style, easily one of the finest displays of the season.

He's won both chase starts in Ireland this season and was the long-term idea of the winner in this intermediate novices' contest.

That was until Willie Mullins used his recent stable tour to pick a fight. Galopin Des Champs was a winner at The Festival last year too and his Leopardstown chasing bow at Christmas was quite awesome. He backed that up at the Dublin Racing Festival with a Grade 1 success, form that stands to scrutiny now.

Those wins came at around 2m5f and popular convention suggested Galopin Des Champs would go up in trip for Cheltenham. Second-guessing Willie Mullins is a fool's errand and that played out when the Closutton chief told the press this race was the target and, if that meant taking on Bob Olinger, then so be it.

Bob Olinger, at 5/6, has the neat turn of foot that might serve him well at this trip, but the relentless galloping nature of 5/4 Galopin Des Champs might render his pace useless by the time they are done out in the countryside. It's going to be one hell of a battle before we get the answers.

Vauban vs. Pied Piper - Triumph Hurdle - Friday 13:30

The final day opens with another Willie Mullins vs. Gordon Elliott clash as 2/1 Vauban gets set to take on 5/2 Pied Piper in the Triumph Hurdle.

They clashed on hurdles debut at Punchestown on New Year's Eve, where Pied Piper got a slender verdict. Vauban might have won had he jumped the last better, while Pied Piper's trainer was adamant he'd be sharper for that run.

Since then, they've built considerably. Pied Piper butchered his rivals on Trials Day at Cheltenham in January, without coming off the bridle, while Vauban won the Grade 1 Spring Juvenile at the Dublin Racing Festival, denting the hopes of Fil D'or - another Elliott runner - in doing so.

Will Pied Piper call the tune again in the Cotswolds or will the speedy Vauban take some revenge? It's a great start to Gold Cup Day at Cheltenham.

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