The £100,000 Charlie Hall Steeplechase at Wetherby is widely acknowledged as one of the most important and influential early season trials for top-quality chasers as they set out on the season long road to the Cheltenham Festival with the very live possibility of running in the Gold Cup itself.
Some of the best chasers of recent times have kicked off their campaigns with a run in this three miler, with the likes of One Man, See More Business and Cue Card, just some of the stand out names on an illustrious roll of honour.
Last year Cue Card and Coneygree were receiving top-billing, but neither of them managed to complete the course and Bristol De Mai picked up the pieces.
Nigel Twiston-Davies' grey gelding followed up that victory with a 57 length success in the Grade One Betfair Chase.
Bristol De Mai failed to run up to that level of form in the King George or the Cotswold Chase at Cheltenham, but he did register a decent post wind-op showing at Aintree when finishing second behind the impressive Might Bite in the Betway Bowl.
One of the star novices of last season was Paul Nicholls’ Black Corton, who enjoyed a wonderful first season over fences.
Partnered by Bryony Frost, Nicholls’ seven-year-old took a Grade One at Kempton, scored a victory at Cheltenham’s International Meeting and captured the Reynoldstown at Ascot.
This will be Black Corton’s stiffest test to date but the ground conditions should be to his liking and he gets on like a house on fire with Frost, who will be hoping to make it an early season big race double after securing victory in Sunday’s Old Roan Chase at Aintree.
Paul Nicholls has also indicated that Clan Des Obeaux, part-owned by Sir Alex Ferguson, is on course for the Charlie Hall Chase as long as the ground is suitable.
His best run of last season came when stepped up to 3m1f on his final start when third to Might Bite at Aintree and on that score, he remains unexposed at the trip too.
There is the chance however that he may yet get rerouted to Down Royal for the JNwine Chase if the ground is deemed not soft enough for him at Wetherby.
Trainer Tom George is looking forward to seeing Double Shuffle make his seasonal bow on Saturday and will be hoping for no transport hiccups this year.
An intended runner for this race last season, the horsebox broke down on the way to the track and the horse unfortunately had to be scratched.
Although winless for two years, the eight-year-old reignited his season last term, most notably pushing Might Bite all the way in the King George VI Chase at Kempton on Boxing Day.
His season somewhat petered out at Aintree and Sandown, but George believes it is all systems go for his comeback on Saturday.
Dan Skelton, who recently broke Martin Pipe’s record for the fastest century of winners in a season, saddles Virgilio in the race with the nine-year-old looking like a slightly forgotten horse in the betting.
After falling at Bechers in last season’s Grand National, the nine-year-old showed no ill-effects and registered another win at Aintree (his fourth) and scored nicely in a highly competitive renewal of the Summer Cup at Uttoxeter.
Virgilio is scheduled to be ridden this Saturday by Bridget Andrews, rather than by his regular winning pilot Harry Skelton.
Andrews landed her first win at the Cheltenham Festival back in March, when driving Mohaayed home in a driving finish to the County Hurdle, and has a good strike rate at the West Yorkshire track.
Speed, agility and good ground are the three things that usually need to combine for Definitly Red to be seen to full effect and there is every chance he could get the latter at the weekend.
The nine-year-old, trained by Brian Ellison, beat Bristol De Mai to win the Cotswolds Chase at Cheltenham earlier this year and despite only finishing third in last season’s renewal of the Charlie Hall, he has improved considerably since and is in with a serious chance.
With so much uncertainty about the final line up of this race come Saturday, it may pay to side with a stable who are definitely using this race as a stepping stone for the rest of the season.
With the Irish contingent likely to stay at home for the Down Royal Festival, and plenty of these runners doubly entered a bet on the trainer of the moment, Dan Skelton, would be a smart choice.
888sport suggest: Virgilio (e/w).
*Odds subject to change - correct at time of writing*