TUESDAY marks an historic change of tradition with respect to the Cheltenham Festival. For the first time, the world-famous meeting has been extended from three days to four.

For the uninitiated we are talking serious party time, with thousands of jumps' disciples hell-bent on enjoying their annual pilgrimage to the Cotswolds, especially the Irish contingent, many of whom take the week off work to eat, drink, bet and be merry.

Everyday around 50,000 spectators cram into Prestbury Park for one of the great sporting and social events on the racing calendar, but for those of us unlucky enough not to attend in person, at least the majority of the action can be seen courtesy of Channel 4.

This year's revised format means a brand new slot for the highlight of the week, the Cheltenham Gold Cup.

In the past the so-called "Blue Riband of Chasing" was always run on Thursday. It has now been switched to Friday at 3.15pm.

It's just one of 24 races and your shirt is probably not the only thing you'll lose if sucker enough to gamble in all two dozens contests. However, there might still be a few bucks to be pocketed if investing wisely.

Generally speaking, the meeting is dominated by a combination of Irish and southern UK-based trainers, such as Somerset's 14-time champion trainer Martin Pipe, plus his arch rival and near-neighbour Paul Nicholls.

The odds are stacked in favour of this predictable scenario continuing, even though for once some bookies are not quite so sure, quoting our own Howard Johnson as third favourite (10-1) to be top-dog at the Festival.

Johnson, whose sole training success so far at the Festival came with Ushers Island 12 years ago, operates from his impressive 1,000-acre set-up at White Lea Farm, Crook.

He's been keeping a relatively low profile of late but dodging the media cannot simply be attributed to the usual cloak-and-dagger stuff since, to be absolutely fair, the state of the ground is a key factor in predicting the prospects of his powerful team.

To quote precise examples is always better than dealing with conjecture and it is a fact that two of Howard's major hopes, INGLIS DREVER and GREY ABBEY, both need a rain-softened surface to be at their best.

Grey Abbey, despite a problem with puffiness around one of his front joints in February, remains a genuine Gold Cup candidate on the strength of his runaway success in the Pillar Chase at the course in January.

"He just burned them off with his jumping and if it came up soft then he might not be a bad each-way bet," said Johnson, whose cause is not alone in being helped by the unfortunate late defection of three-times reigning champion Best Mate.

Jockey Graham Lee, from Ingleby Barwick, was on board that day, as well as steering the handsome near-white gelding to victory under top-weight in last year's Scottish National.

Lee, only recently back in the saddle following a broken collarbone, is equally upbeat. "Grey Abbey is so tough and genuine, we took off at one fence where a jet wouldn't have left the ground."

Inglis Drever is scheduled to appear in either Tuesday's two-mile Champion Hurdle or Thursday's three-mile World Hurdle.

"Three miles should be no problem to him, he was staying on over 2m5f when narrowly beaten in last year's SunAlliance Hurdle," revealed Johnson, hinting that the latter race is the obvious target.

For the record, Inglis Drever is just one of an astronomical 88 horses owned by husband and wife Graham and Andrea Wylie, who have invested several millions in horseflesh housed at White Lea stables over the past couple of years.

Wylie made his money by co-founding Sage UK, a Newcastle-based computer software company with a turnover of £500m.

He sold out for well in excess of £110m during 2004, although he still has a major foothold in the industry via TSG, an IT installation and solutions group, which employs around 400 staff.

"We'll keep all options open and it is the same for the novices," says Wylie, referring to ARCALIS, MEPHISTO, BEWLEYS BERRY and not forgetting LENNON, the couple's entry in the two-mile Champion "Bumper" on Wednesday.

Possible pick of the classy quartet is the speedy 2004 York John Smith's Cup winner Arcalis, scheduled to take part in Tuesday's opening Supreme Novices' Hurdle.

Away from the Wylie gang, mention must be made of AKILAK, Johnson's 6-1 market leader in the JCB Triumph Hurdle, together with fancied Coral Cup contender, COVENT GARDEN, both owned by the ADA partnership, of whom none other than Magpies' icon Alan Shearer is a member.

Akilak proved he handled the track by making a winning debut on the same day that Grey Abbey did the business. He was then a whopping 50-1 shot, odds slashed to 4/9 when successful on his only other outing at Haydock in February.

Bred by the Aga Khan, Akilak has the pedigree to go all the way in Friday's two-miler, a fiercely-competitive affair which, in addition, features another of the north's leading fancies, CARTE DIAMOND.

Brian Ellison's Malton raider cost Ashley Carr 105,000 guineas when purchased out of Mark Johnston's yard.

Carr immediately recouped £35,425 after his horse won under a forceful Kieren Fallon ride in Doncaster's November Handicap, however he and Ellison have always had Cheltenham on their mind with Carte Diamond.

"He's rated 104 on the level, which is why I was so uptight before he made a winning start over hurdles at Newcastle," explained Ellison, who recently took his expensive stable-star for a work-out on Southwell's all-weather track.

Wensleydale's genial Irish handler Ferdy Murphy has been a great friend to Northern Echo readers, famously tipping up TRIBAL VENTURE at 100-1 when third at the meeting two years ago.

"Tribal Venture's a lovely sort and goes for Wednesday's Royal & SunAlliance Chase," said Murphy.

"SUPREME DEVELOPER is the forgotten horse of Tuesday's Arkle Chase.

"He's got some really good form against highly-rated horses and is a good each-way bet, while LUZCADOU is well-handicapped on the same afternoon in the Sporting Index Chase.

"JOES EDGE is one our best chances of the week in Thursday's Jewson Novices' Handicap Chase. On that day we've also have YOUR A GASSMAN in the National Hunt Challenge Cup, and CARLYS QUEST plus BASILEA STAR in the Pertemps Final.

"Your A Gassman ballooned a couple of early fences and got behind in the Sky Bet Chase, however he finished fastest of all up the home straight.

"Finally there's TRUCKERS TAVERN in Friday's Gold Cup. He was second in the 2003 race and cannot be ruled out," concluded Murphy.

The Vincent O'Brien County Hurdle brings the curtain down at 5.20pm on Friday, in which Patrick Haslam's Middleham contender, KING REVO, a proven performer at Prestbury Park, represents my banker bet for the week.

As far as the others go, Johnson is throwing plenty of mud at the wall and some of it is bound to stick, the tricky part is working out exactly how many of his horses will return to the North-East with the cash in the bank.

Meanwhile, Murphy recommends an each-way double on Thursday's pairing, Joes Edge and Your A Gassman.

Given Murphy has already been responsible for five Cheltenham Festival winners, that's solid advice from an exemplary source.

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