One can comprehend why the Dan Skelton-trained Shan Blue has opened as the early favourite for this Class 1 handicap chase.
That's not to say that the market is necessarily correct, but his performance over course and distance in the 2021 Charlie Hall Chase is still obviously fresh enough in the mind to understand his place at the head of the market.
On that day Shan Blue had shot clear of his rivals when taking a crashing fall at the third last fence.
My notes immediately after that late fall included the following lines:
He was undoubtedly super impressive to the eye as he powered up the home straight with the race apparently in safe keeping. At the same time, there can be little doubt that this race took a lot less winning than most recent renewals.
The favourite choked and he may be retired, and the eventual winner still has his stamina to prove for this three-mile trip. The third horse probably needed the run and/or failed to last home.
This left the runner up Kitty's Light as the most sensible marker to gauge the quality of this performance on. That one is a solid enough one-paced staying handicapper and Shan Blue will surely face much tougher tests than this when he returns to compete in the spring festivals.
I wonder if his reputation will ever be as high as it probably is right now despite his unfortunate late fall. This is a perfect example of when to challenge an apparently out of the ordinary performance.
Either Shan Blue has improved by 20lbs and more or this race took a lot less winning than appeared likely prior to the race. I know which way my vote would go...
Shan Blue's main victory over three miles has not worked out well. That success came in the 2020 Kauto Star Novices' Chase at Kempton.
The four horses to complete the course behind him on that day are yet to win a race in 24 subsequent attempts.
His only other success over this trip was earned over the Rowland Meyrick course and distance when he finished 16 lengths clear of the 126-rated Snow Leopardess.
With his stamina not yet completely proven he is an easy favourite to oppose which is a good starting platform from which to continue with my studies.
I was really impressed with the way Into Overdrive jumped and travelled through his race when finishing behind the top class L'Homme Presse at Newcastle last month.
The winner of that contest is currently high on my shortlist for the 2023 Cheltenham Gold Cup, irrespective of how he gets on in the King George Chase on Boxing Day.
Personally, I would make Into Overdrive the favourite for the Rowland Meyrick, providing the ground does not get too soft by Monday. He is a superb jumper, and his prominent style of racing will be a positive round Wetherby.
I am really hoping we will see his jockey keep him well away from the inside rail in this contest. He rather got away with doing just that when winning here in late October. However, that was a race that really fell apart and took relatively little winning.
Into Overdrive has a lot more on his plate here and will need to keep away from the chewed-up ground close to the inside rail to enhance his claims further. Even more so as one would have to assume that the current favourite Shan Blue will be taken wide given the Skeltons' recent tactics at Wetherby.
The third favourite in the early markets is Chantry House, who has failed to complete the course in each of his two latest outings.
At his current single-figure price, he is an easy horse to oppose, irrespective of how it turns out on the day. He has failed to complete the course in three of his latest four chases, including when falling early on at Aintree on his recent seasonal debut.
Maybe he will return to his best form at Wetherby on Boxing Day; either way, if he does happen to come home in front it will be due to him turning a major corner.
This is not something I want to bet on when the horse in question is trading as the third favourite. This possible scenario is more one to take a chance on at very big odds.
The Rowland Meyrick is likely to be run at a strong pace which should improve the claims of Sounds Russian, who was outpaced last time out at Aintree in the race where Chantry House fell early, before rallying late on to finish closest at the line.
I would be hopeful rather than very confident that the pace of this 12-runner handicap chase will be more to his liking.
I am not keen on the favourite nor the third-favourite at their current odds and I would have Sounds Russian as my second choice behind Into Overdrive.
He is usually held up so it will be interesting to see how close he can keep to the pace in a potentially stronger run race like this.
Fanion D'Estruval will pop up at a huge price one day, but at the same time we could well be penniless following a horse with his profile prior to his big day.
He struggles to jump big fences with enough fluency to stay with the field, irrespective of the distance he is competing over, and when he races over an intermediate trip, he stays on in the manner one might associate with a horse needing three miles.
Last time out he ran on past beaten horses at Newbury in a way to suggest that the Scottish National should be the plan. If he happens to remain close enough to challenge the leading horses in the home straight, then so be it.
Even though he has a very big engine and possesses a lot more talent than his poor win to run ratio would suggest - he is not for me at his single figure price.
I am not sure what happened to Aye Right in the Rehearsal Chase last time out, when perhaps the lead was simply too busy for him, which would be of some concern here.
He had developed a habit of dropping himself out early on in a couple of races a season or two ago, so it will be interesting to see how his 5lbs claimer gets on with him at Wetherby.
On a going day he seems a straightforward enough ride; however, that tendency to need rousting in the early stages is a little worrying.
Conversely, if he jumps off in front and appears to be enjoying himself, he will be a danger to all. But his profile strongly suggests he is more likely to finish in the first few rather than win this prestigious prize.
He has only come home in front once in his latest 13 chases and his career record over fences reads two from 15.
Kalashnikov's reputation has long since superseded anything he has achieved on the racecourse, as has not won a race since April 2019, while the fact that we have not seen him on a racecourse in 648 days does not suggest a winning combination.
Philip Hobbs has two entries in the race and the first one to consider is Zanza who is a most inconsistent type.
He was on a going day at Newbury in late November and was raised 10lbs by the handicapper for his 12-length success, and his new mark of 144 is not so much of a problem as the realistic likelihood of him repeating the quality of his latest performance.
Prior to Newbury, Zanza had managed to lose 12 races in a row and he is a difficult horse to want onside, especially after being raised so much on the back of one race where he happened to find himself on a going day.
If he does the same again here, I will happily cheer him home and lose my money.
The other runner from the Philip Hobbs yard is the JP McManus-owned Sporting John, who last competed in a chase in April 2021.
His one success in his four chases to date was earned whilst competing on heavy ground at Sandown in February 2021, when beating the Rowland Meyrick favourite Shan Blue by three and three-quarter lengths, so fans of pounds-and-lengths theories will notice that he is only marginally worse off here.
Sporting John failed to complete the course in two of his other three chases and was beaten by 33 lengths in the other.
His claims will be more obvious if the ground rides on the testing side on Boxing Day, but whatever happens at Wetherby, he looks a risky proposition based on his profile as a chaser.
The Joe Tizzard stable is not in the best of form at the moment which does not augur well for Lostintranslation, who has only won one of his latest 12 races and that success was earned on good ground.
His poor win-to-run ratio, plus his preference for a sound surface, would make him a difficult horse to want on side in such a competitive race.
Top Ville Ben
The last time Top Ville Ben won over fences was in the 2019 renewal of the Rowland Meyrick.
His form over fences at Wetherby reads 115153 and those two fifth-place finishes came when he was outclassed in the 2019 and the 2021 renewals of the Grade Two Charlie Hall Chase.
He will be suited to the likely soft conditions and will be ridden prominently, so if his jockey keeps him away from the inside rail, he has a good chance of outrunning his massive odds.
Windsor Avenue is another hit-or-bust type, and having failed to complete the course in four of his latest six chases, he can clearly not be relied upon to give us a run for our money.
On the other hand, he performed well last time out when finishing behind Into Overdrive in the Rehearsal Chase at Newcastle, and won a listed chase at Doncaster in the only other race in that sequence.