Bookies bet pint sales and attendance to break records at Cheltenham
Punters, trainers and jockeys are preparing for what could be the biggest Cheltenham Festival ever, as the exodus of thousands of Irish fans begins in earnest today.
The horse racing calendar's highlight kicks off tomorrow morning, after attracting more spectators last year than ever before.
Irish icons Willie Mullins and Ruby Walsh have been tipped for further successes in 2016, along with younger trainers such as Gordon Elliot.
But the record-breaking feats won't be limited to the racecourse, with everything from the number of attendees to the amount of Guinness sold set to exceed expectations.
Féilim Mac An Iomaire of Paddy Power said the chances of more than 250,000 people attending Cheltenham this year are high.
"Last year there was huge uptake in attendance," he said. "It's 8/11 that it will be over 250,000 [this year]."
He also estimated that €125m in bets will be wagered throughout the four-day festival.
"This year, it's 5/4 that 235,000 pints of Guinness will be bought, but we're expecting to exceed that," he added.
While the Irish have always had a long association with the festival, it's thought their presence this year could be even stronger than usual.
"Willie Mullins is naturally one of the top trainers of the field," said Mr Mac An Iomaire. "So Irish people have more and more of an affinity with [Cheltenham] as well." And it isn't just the seasoned experts of racing who are arriving in Prestbury Park either.
"It's one of the events where you have your regular punters who follow horseracing throughout the year, but Cheltenham is of the times that attracts everyone," he added.
The weather outlook is bright too, with forecasts suggesting temperatures could creep above average.
Willie Mullins and Ruby Walsh have been deemed the ones to watch.
But 16-year-old Dingle native Jack Kennedy will also be in the spotlight when he competes at Cheltenham for the first time.
Dermot McLoughlin, a trainer based in Ratoath, Co Meath, said he had "never seen as strong a group of Irish horses as this year".
"As a trainer, I'll be looking at all the Irish horses. But it's hard to see past Willie's team."
Meanwhile, Aoife Heffron of Boyle Sports suggested that Ireland may not be guaranteed a victory in the Ladies' Day competition.
"Ireland may have won last year, but at the moment the betting is siding with a Great Britain fashion victory at 2/5," she said.