The start of November is always a key point of the National Hunt season with the big fixtures now starting to come thick and fast. That is certainly the case this weekend with several important meetings on both sides of the Irish Sea for racing fans to take in. A number of star names will be making an appearance over the next couple of days as they hopefully begin the long path towards the Cheltenham Festival.
Perhaps the best card of the weekend will take place at Wetherby with the Charlie Hall Chase on Saturday taking centre stage. The 3m1f contest has developed into a key early season race when it comes to the staying chase division and we have a strong field engaged for the feature. The star attraction will be Long Run who will be making his first start of the season for Nicky Henderson and he will start as a warm favourite.
The 2011 Gold Cup winner has been one of the best chasers in training over the past few years and a good performance at Wetherby should set him on the road to another strong campaign. He will be aimed at Kempton on Boxing Day and an attempt at winning the King George for a third time, but first he will need to produce this weekend. There is no doubt that Long Run sets the standard here but he does face a tough test against the likes of Unioniste and Harry Topper who were both highly progressive last season.
Elsewhere on the Wetherby card there is an excellent Bet365 Hurdle to take in over 3m1f with At Fishers Cross the one to beat. The Rebecca Curtis trained horse was the impressive winner of the Albert Bartlett Novices Hurdle at the Festival last season and most are expecting big things from him once again. He will be taking on hot chaser Tidal Bay who will be having a run over hurdles to sharpen him up for Paul Nicholls, but in truth all eyes will be on At Fishers Cross. The feeling is that he will make up into a World Hurdle horse at the Cheltenham Festival and a good run at Wetherby will only serve to confirm those suspicions.
The road to the David Nicholson Mares Hurdle also begins at Wetherby this weekend with a nice Mares race taking place over two miles. Une Artiste and L'Unique set the standard here and a good run by either of them will enhance their credentials for the the Festival.
There is also a nice fixture at Down Royal on Saturday to take in with the Grade 1, JNWine Champion Chase the highlight of the day. The race is run over three miles in Northern Ireland and has been won by some excellent horses in recent years. In 2012 we saw Kauto Stone claim the win for Paul Nocholls and he is back to defend his title on Saturday.
Kauto Stone often produces his best form at this time of year but he faces a very stiff challenge here from the evergreen Sizing Europe. The Henry De Bromhead horse is a double Cheltenham Festival winner and while he isn't getting any younger, he still sets the standard when it comes to Irish chasers. Connections are convinced that the three miles will benefit him as he gets older but with First Lieutenant also engaged, this promises to be a thrilling renewal.
The Grade 2 Power Irish Whiskey Chase over 2m4 is the other big race on the Down Royal Card on Saturday and that also looks like a hot renewal. Paul Nicholls has a great record in the race and saddles Rolling Aces against the Gigginstown trio of Tofino Bay, Dedigout and the improving Tonoer D'Oudairies among others.
The Irish action also continues on Sunday afternoon with a nice card taking place at Cork. Willie Mullins will, as always, have a strong hand there with Felix Yonger and Darroun set for the Novice Chase at 2.40pm. They are both highly thought of while the same can certainly be said of Indevan who will run for Mullins in the Novice Hurdle over three miles on the same card. They are all horses who could find themselves cut for various Cheltenham races if they perform well at the weekend, ensuring that punters will be glued to the action.