Ben Coley looks ahead to a quality day's racing at Sandown, where Pete The Feat would be a popular winner, while there's an eye on Sedgefield, too.
Each careful step...
Sandown's Tingle Creek meeting begins on Friday and the feature race, the Ballymore Winter Novices' Hurdle, is fascinating.
In Darlac, we get a feeler for the value of Coolanly's defeat of Pym at Cheltenham. Whatever Colin Tizzard's horse does here, one suspects it's strong form and the runner-up in particular ought to be a horse to keep on-side for the rest of the season.
Then there's Truckin Away, whose defeat of smart bumper performer Acey Milan when the pair made their respective hurdling debuts at Ffos Las marked him out as one to follow. The fact that the runner-up flopped at Plumpton on Monday doesn't alter that perception.
We have an unbeaten mare, trained by Alan King, who has won the race four times; we have a 17-length novice winner for columnist Warren Greatrex; we have a point winner for Evan Williams who looked good when making a winning hurdles debut; we have a rematch from Lingfield, where Down The Highway sluiced through the mud to beat Mercy Mercy Me.
And more, much more than this, we have My Way.
This four-year-old, unlike all those mentioned, is still to win a race. Yet twice he's been beaten by subsequent Grade One winners and, campaigned over hurdles and over fences for Francois Nicole including in pattern company, he achieved a level of form which suggests he might go on to take a high rank now in the care of Paul Nicholls.
That much was hinted at by Mark Howard in his horses-to-follow piece for us at the start of the National Hunt season and he was not alone - it's evidently an open secret that this gelding, who has had wind surgery and wears a tongue-tie, is highly regarded. Indeed it's significant that Mick Fitzgerald was also among those to mention My Way before he was entered anywhere.
Nicholls, for his part, described the horse as "really exciting" back in October, adding: "He reminds me very much of Noland and Al Ferof, not electric at home but a real galloper who jumps great. He’ll stick to hurdling this season, starting low down, but I’d like to think we could end up at Cheltenham come the spring."
The McNeill Family have had some smart horses over the last decade or so, chiefly Walkon and Grumeti for Alan King and, more recently, The Worlds End for Tom George. Here, they combine with Chris Giles - owner of Topofthegame, among others - for one who could yet prove to be their best. Time will tell, but with soft ground and a step up to two and a half miles both thought to be in his favour, My Way could be the one to beat.
As for Cheltenham, he's 50/1 in a place for the Ballymore and 40/1 for the Sky Bet Supreme. Given his starting point, the former has to be worth taking.
Pete The Feat has become a National Hunt hero, at least to the dyed-in-the-wool types, thanks to his exploits at Sandown, including in last year's renewal of the Holiday Inn Shepperton Amateur Riders' Handicap Chase.
Then a 13-year-old, Pete The Feat defied not only his age but his starting price and big weight to win "splendidly", according to the Racing Post in-running comments. It's impossible to disagree with the assessment.
That was off a mark of 127, but having turned 14 he came back to chase home the younger, classier Buywise off 130 in January before bringing the house down on the eve of the Cheltenham Festival, defying another small rise in the weights to make it three wins and two seconds from nine starts in Esher.
He's followed the same path this time, namely running well enough to a point over course and distance a month ago, and the handicapper has generously dropped him 2lb - yes, he's run once since winning in the spring and is now below that mark. The assessor must surely be a patron of Age Concern.
Eventually, those four legs and that brave heart will no longer be enough for Pete The Feat to win races, but I couldn't say for certain that the day has come just yet. And, while Friday's race is not restricted to veterans, to my eye the biggest dangers to the top weight are aged 10, 11 and 12. (Ed - for the purpose of the line, we've ignored the five-year-old lurking at the bottom of the weights; ground won't be right, anyway!)
Maybe he could.
Writing 24 hours in advance of the race, it's nigh on impossible to know what to expect from the Cheltenham Festival winner who lines up at Sedgefield in the Happy Christmas From Paxtons Handicap Hurdle, whose top weight is rated 120.
Call The Cops won the Pertemps Final once upon a time, defying a mark of 138 in so doing, before a head second at Aintree saw him scale the dizzy heights of 153. You'd have been forgiven for thinking Nicky Henderson's horse might even end up a Stayers' Hurdle candidate.
Then things went wrong, and when he refused to race having been backed into favouritism for a low-key chase at Ffos Las, enough was enough. Off he went to Ben Haslam's, where the rogue Mr Mole had also just arrived. What a pair to be handed for Christmas.
Mr Mole would prove beyond help and perhaps that'll be the case with Call The Cops, too, but it's at least interesting that he's back from more than a year off here - having been fairly well supported when last in action, back in September 2017.
Now, he's running over two miles rather than the trips over which he thrived before, so perhaps today is not the day. He's nevertheless worth watching, first for market support and then, whether that has arrived or not, for some kind of spark.
Haslam has an ex-Gordon Elliott inmate running on the same card, having also recently inherited a couple from Willie Mullins. It's a difficult task to coax any of them to the potential they've shown either on paper or the track, but if it's to happen anywhere then Sedgefield, where the trainer operates at 14 per cent and to a level-stakes profit, is probably the place.