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And they're off ... Irish punters to wager €120m

THE invasion of Cheltenham began today, with Irish punters expected to wager a colossal €120m on the festival.

As many as 13,000 horse racing enthusiasts will make the pilgrimage from Ireland to attend the four-day event, which begins tomorrow.

Ryanair has scheduled 50 extra flights to transport punters to the biggest and most popular occasion on the National Hunt calendar.

Hurricane Fly, tomorrow's favourite in the Champion Hurdle, will leave bookies nursing their wounds if he romps home.

Bookmaker Paddy Power is already vowing to refund all losing bets should the 2/1 favourite, ridden by Kildare jockey Ruby Walsh, win.

Festival organisers had the frost covers in place as the weather took a turn for the worse.

The area protected by the covers is 65 acres or the equivalent of 45 football pitches.

Clerk of the course, Simon Claisse, said the forecast showed some wintry showers over the next couple of days.

"The ground, though, is unlikely to dry out much under the covers. We are experiencing a wind chill of -3C at the moment, with the temperature being 2C," he added.

The old course where the first two days of racing take place will be uncovered on Tuesday morning, but the sheeting on the new course will remain in place until Thursday morning.

Met Eireann's John Eagleton had some good news for punters, saying some sun is expected over the next few days.

"The sun at this time of year is strong so I wouldn't have any worries for Cheltenham," he added. Irish hopes at the festival rest mainly with champion trainer, Willie Mullins, who trains Hurricane Fly and another favourite, Quevega.

He is bringing a large number of horses from his Co Carlow base to Prestbury Park.

Among those in attendance again this year will be Ireland's millionaire stable lad who won €1.2m on a five-horse accumulator.

Conor Murphy (29), from Ballineen, Co Cork, was the hero of the festival last year with his extraordinary win.

Since then, he has managed to realise his ambition and set up as a trainer in the US.

"I'll be in Cheltenham for the week. I'll have a few bets on. Last year was a one-off, but you have to try again just in case. You never know," Conor said.