IN A NUTSHELL
You could call them the Fab Four. Winter Saturdays regularly produce exciting contests, but something extra-special is in store from the box-office quartet set to line up in Saturday's Tingle Creek Chase.
Altior, Un De Sceaux, Sceau Royal and Saint Calvados – four names to make the spine tingle. They have recorded 16 Grade 1 victories between them and everything is in place for an epic spectacle.
Altior, the established star in the line-up, has built up an air of invincibility with a 14-race unbeaten record over hurdles and fences – his last defeat coming in the Punchestown Champion Bumper in April 2015.
But there are dangers lurking at every turn with 2016 winner Un De Sceaux attempting to regain his crown, the spring-heeled Sceau Royal firmly on the upgrade and Saint Calvados fresh from putting the skids under Footpad.
There are few finer sights – if any – during the winter than the top chasers flying over Sandown's Railway fences and Racing Post Arkle favourite Lalor will be aiming to navigate them safely in the Grade 1 Henry VIII Novices' Chase in similarly exhilarating style to his Cheltenham success last month.
If that was not enough, the most famous fences of all will be jumped at Aintree as the Grand National course is in operation for the first time this season. In the Becher Chase, Blaklion will be looking to repeat his dominant victory from 12 months ago.
Becher's Brook and the Chair have been put on hold for the returning One For Arthur, however, with connections opting to take in regulation fences in the Many Clouds Chase on the nine-year-old's first start since winning the National in April last year.
Plenty of excuses, if you need them, to put back the Christmas shopping for another week.
Ruby Walsh will ride in Britain for the first time in nine months when renewing his partnership with past winner Un De Sceaux in the Tingle Creek at Sandown.
Walsh, who has had an injury-ravaged past 12 months, has not ridden in Britain since refracturing his leg in a fall from Al Boum Photo in the RSA Chase at the Cheltenham Festival in March.
The 39-year-old, who can count Un De Sceaux's win two years ago among four Tingle Creek victories, will be reunited with the prolific Willie Mullins-trained chaser for the first time since last year's Punchestown festival.
Un De Sceaux, a nine-time Grade 1 winner, will be only the second runner in Britain for Mullins this jumps season following on from Royal Illusion, who finished third in a Listed mares' bumper at Cheltenham last month.
Next test for Lalor
The last two winners of the Henry VIII Novices' Chase were Altior and Sceau Royal, evidence of its status as a test bed for the best young two-mile operators over fences.
Saturday's Randox Health-sponsored contest, featuring Racing Post Arkle joint-favourite Lalor, promises to be just as illuminating.
Electric when making a winning chase debut in a Grade 2 at Cheltenham last month, Lalor is a top-priced 5-1 for the Arkle, the same price as Monday's effortless Plumpton winner Kalashnikov.
But it will be no cakewalk for the Kayley Woollacott-trained six-year-old, with Diakali, unbeaten in three starts over fences, among his five rivals.
Scudamore steps in on One For Arthur
Last year's Grand National hero One For Arthur will have a new jockey for his eagerly anticipated return to action at Aintree, with Tom Scudamore stepping in to replace the injured Derek Fox.
With Fox on the sidelines following a back operation, a replacement was needed and connections have opted to keep it in the family as Scudamore father's Peter is partner and assistant to One For Arthur's trainer Lucinda Russell.
One For Arthur, who sustained a leg injury after winning the Grand National and has not raced since, makes his comeback in the Grade 2 Betway Many Clouds Chase.
"It's a real honour to have been asked to ride him," said Scudamore. "It's frustrating for Derek and I'll be keeping the seat warm for when he gets back."
One For Arthur has been ridden by two jockeys under rules with Fox taking over following the retirement of Russell's former stable jockey Peter Buchanan.
"I might not have ridden him in a race before, but I schooled him at Lucinda's before the National a couple of years ago," said Scudamore. "They're delighted to get him back on track and he's very well and should run a big race."
Top amateur the way to go
Going down the tried and tested route is often the best way to approach races over the Grand National fences.
Punters looking to crack the code in the Becher and Grand Sefton Chases should consider horses and jockeys who have thrived over the course in the past.
Sam Waley-Cohen has proved his credentials in the unique jumping test and that is not lost on Warren Greatrex, who has booked him to ride last season's Kim Muir winner Missed Approach in the Becher Chase.
The Cheltenham Gold Cup-winning rider is the only amateur to have landed the Becher when scoring on Oscar Time in 2014.
He rode the same horse to finish second in the Grand National three years earlier and has won six races in all over the big fences.
Rain arrives – and more set to follow
With the rain finally arriving in most parts of Britain, testing conditions will be the order of the day at Sandown and Aintree.
The ground at Sandown was on Friday described as soft on the chase course and heavy, soft in places over hurdles and a further 2-3mm of rain is forecast for Saturday.
At Aintree conditions were on Friday night described as soft, heavy at Canal Turn on the National course and soft on the Mildmay and Hurdle tracks with the chance of heavy rain overnight.
BHA jockey coach Brian Harding will be in attendance to walk the National course with any jockeys.