Ah, the Cheltenham Festival, how we've missed you. The greatest four days in jump racing are now only weeks away - but there are many over-a-bevvy debates to be had before the big guns do battle in the Cotswolds.
In the weeks leading up to the jewel in jump racing's crown, the ever-popular preview nights prove the perfect warm-up act, providing punters with a golden opportunity to glean more than a few valuable hints before the madness in March. With a number of top trainers, jockeys and pundits on hand, you really couldn't be better placed to amass all the punting ammo you need to take down the bookies at Prestbury Park.
Preview nights are rightly renowned for the banter and the boozing, but it's not all about the craic (unless you're Davy Russell, a legend at things like these). So, why do we go? Plenty in attendance go simply for the guaranteed entertainment, while the majority show up for one reason and one reason only - winners.
Of course there are gems to be found on such nights - that's their raison d'etre - but the key is knowing whose advice to heed when it really matters. I'm biased, but my revered Racing Post colleague Paul Kealy, a panel regular, is a proper judge and well worth following.
These epic evenings take place in Britain and Ireland in the weeks and days counting down to that marvellous midweek in March, with many costing less than a tenner. Some are glitzy, some are not - but it all adds to rugged brilliance of Cheltenham. Here are my preview night pointers . .
Take a pen
Sounds simple but you don't want to be caught lacking. How many times have you been in desperate need for a pen, only for life to let you down? And I'm not talking about that pristine Parker you got given for Christmas - woah, leave that bad boy at home. Something as modest and trusty as Biro will get you through, you never know when it might come in handy. Obviously, you can pop a few notes down on your phone, but what if your battery is odds-against to last the course? Just take a pen - at least then you'll arrive safe in the knowledge you won't fail to remember that good thing everyone was raving about.
What's the point in going if you think you've got every race cracked? Sure, we'd all love to feel guaranteed of 28 winners before the meeting's even here, but the whole point of the preview night is this: you can canvas opinion, listen to the experts and choose to take away even the smallest bit of info you feel may help you in your quest for success. Don't go in with an arrogant mindset, one whereby you already feel assured to conquer (this confidence could be well placed, of course). But be receptive to the views of the panel, allow them to inform your betting perspectives and make your decisions closer to the off.
Preview nights give you unparalleled access to some of the sport's biggest names: if the opportunity arises, quiz them. While such events can go well in to the night, there's always a chance there will be time for punters to take aim at the panel, commonly cushioning the bums of the big-race jockeys and trainers of well-fancied festival contenders. However, it's the big-field handicaps (otherwise known as minefields) that will ultimately decide your festival fate, so if you're the courageous type then just dive straight in and present a poser about those all-important handicap marks, even more so if BHA kingpin Phil Smith or popular Irish counterpart Noel O'Brien are in attendance.
We've all been there, the well-intentioned pint that turned into the night from hell, ending with an Uber soiling charge costing more than an Armani suit. Peroni is strong stuff, more so if you're necking it at Champion Hurdle pace, so the sage advice is to take a pull after a couple of liveners to ensure you're fully switched on before the festivities really get under way. Irish legend Tommy Kinane had it right when chatting to a group of us at Punchestown a couple of years back. Tips was the question, pace yourself was the answer!
If circumstances go against you, meaning you can't make your intended engagement (apologies, Faugheen backers), use social media. Many events will be streamed live on Facebook or Periscope, while some are hosted direct on Twitter. You'll find plenty of interested observers tweeting live, with even the big names themselves getting in on the act (#selfie). If you can't be there to hear it, be alive on Twitter to make sure you never miss a trick.
Do it yourself
Take inspiration from the roaring success of the humble preview night and host one of your own. All you need is some friends (not always easy, I understand), a decent venue, preferably some drinks and plenty of brains. There'll be more falling outs than on Jeremy Kyle but it'll be worth it - we're a fiercely competitive bunch and we only want to win, right?
James Pugh, Racing Post @Jimmypugh33
List of 2017 preview evenings via the Racehorse Owners Association