03/10/2012 1:27PM

Steeplechase festival begins four-day run Tuesday

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It has been compared to horse racing with Mardi Gras, or maybe it’s the other way around.

Either way, the four-day National Hunt festival , the world’s most prestigious gathering of steeplechasers, begins at Cheltenham Racecourse in western England on Tuesday.

In a four-day span, there are 27 races over hurdles or fences, at distances ranging from two miles to 4 1/8 miles. Each day features a major stakes – Tuesday’s top race is the Champion Hurdle over two miles, followed by the Queen Mother Champion Chase over two miles on Wednesday, the World Hurdle over three miles on Thursday, and the Cheltenham Gold Cup over 3 1/4 miles on Friday.

Some figures associated with the event are staggering, and don’t all involve racing or betting. The event is about atmosphere as much as the sport of racing.

Track management expects to pour 220,000 pints of Guinness to an expected crowd of 230,000 over four days. Betting handle, ontrack through the tote and with bookmakers, and throughout Britain and Ireland from the same sources, is expected to surpass a staggering $950 million.

The focus of the week is Friday’s Gold Cup. The 12-year-old gelding Kauto Star, who won the race in 2007 and 2009, has been the main story in the build-up, having fallen during a jumping session in late February. He has subsequently trained well, trainer Paul Nicholls has told British media.

Third in the 2011 Gold Cup, Kauto Star is currently the 7-2 second choice in the betting to defending champion Long Run, the 7-4 favorite.

Run over 22 fences, the Gold Cup is comparable to the Breeders’ Cup Classic as a season-ending championship for older horses.

Tuesday’s Champion Hurdle, over eight obstacles easier to negotiate than fences, is led by two 8-year-olds – defending champion Hurricane Fly (4-5 with bookmakers on Saturday) and 2010 winner Binocular (5-1).