RACELINE TURFBLOG: Countdown to the Cheltenham Festival starts here!

FOR many, the period between Christmas and spring is the most miserable of the year.

But for those of us immersed in racing, it is a time of anticipation and excitement.

Because as soon as the turkey has dried and the tinsel has dulled, all thoughts turn to the Cheltenham Festival in March. The highlight of the racing year.

The countdown has begun in earnest. As I write, the clock reads 58 days until the tapes are lifted to herald the start of the Supreme Novices Hurdle on Tuesday March 12.

The Supreme triggers four days and 27 races of magnificent action that transform a quiet corner of the Cotswolds into a cauldron of sporting theatre.

Over the coming weeks, I will be bringing you a series of Festival Countdown pieces, aiming to capture the sense of expectation that grips racing fans at this time of year.

For many of those fans, the trip to Cheltenham has become an annual pilgrimage bordering on an obsession.

For myself, this will be my 29th Festival on the trot. Apart from the 2011 renewal, which was sabotaged by the foot-and-mouth crisis, I have been to every Festival since 1984 when the ill-fated Dawn Run won the Champion Hurdle.

Since Dermot Browne booted home the Michael Dickinson-trained Browne’s Gazette in the Supreme, I have seen every race and witnessed every vestige of drama and emotion. From the day they ran the Gold Cup in the snow to the day Desert Orchid sloshed through the mud. From the day high winds brought everything to a halt to the day Master Minded breezed like the wind to announce himself the two-mile champion of all champions.

The glorious heroics of Kauto Star, Denman, Best Mate, Istabraq, See You Then et al are all etched on the memory forever more. Not to mention the jockeys, the trainers, the owners, the characters who have enriched the tapestry of history at Prestbury Park.

The build-up to the Festival is now as consuming as the week itself. Analysing and predicting the outcome of the races is now a science in its own right.

Thousands of us pore over form books, trends from previous years, quotes from trainers, snippets of inside information from ‘those in the know’. Thousands more flock to preview events, desperate for the views of so-called experts. All in search of the golden nuggets that can turn a memorable Festival into an unforgettable one.

The entries for three of the 2013 Festival’s main races -- the Gold Cup, Queen Mother Champion Chase and Ryanair Chase -- were released this week. These will be followed by the Champion Hurdle and the World Hurdle next midweek.

Over the subsequent fortnight, we will then learn the entries for the big novice chases and novice hurdles. And the adrenalin will really be rushing by the time the entries and weights for the Festival’s 11 handicaps are made public on Thursday February 21 and Wednesday February 27 respectively.

The purpose of our weekly countdowns will not be to ram tips down your throat but to guide you through the minefield that is the ante-post landscape and to offer a personal view of where the value might lie at any given time.

As things stand, the markets for the Gold Cup, Queen Mother and Ryanair fail to reflect that many trials are still to be run and many targets are still to be specified.

But after rediscovering his best form over Christmas, 12/1 about MENORAH for the Ryanair looks decidedly attractive.

The Gold Cup is all about deciding which line of form is the strongest -- that of the King George on Boxing Day or that of the Lexus Chase two days later.

As for the Queen Mother, it’s all about whether the 1/2 favourite, Sprinter Sacre, is unbeatable or not.

Smacking your lips already? Join the queue!