HEXHAM'S fearsome uphill climb to the winning post holds no fears for one of the most consistent mares currently in training, Midlem Melody (3.00).

Only once out of the first three on her previous eight outings, Midlem Melody fought like a tigress to outbattle a useful field at Carlisle the time before last.

And she's since maintained her recent excellent run of form by finishing third at Ayr - yet another courageous performance to suggest today's Country Club Handicap Chase is there for the taking.

Alistair Charlton, who trains just a few miles down the road from the track at Stocksfield, could have the locals jumping for joy provided Tobesure (2.25) comes good in the Weatherbys Insurance Novices' Handicap Chase.

Charlton's gelding made a highly satisfactory reappearance over hurdles when runner-up at Kelso in early October. In reality I suspect that effort was merely a warm-up for this afternoon's much-awaited chasing debut, fancied to get off to a dream start on his inaugural try over fences.

Kempton-bound Island Stream (1.45) looked dead and buried when slamming into the roots of the third flight from home at Uttoxeter 12 days ago. Down but most definitely not out, Island Stream scraped himself up off the deck and rallied in ultra-game fashion to pick off the long time leader Montesino to record a famous half-length victory.

Doubtless John Jenkins will have his owns opinion about the selection being hoisted a thumping 7lbs for what was ultimately a very narrow success, not that I believe it will necessarily stop Island Stream from posting back-to-backs wins in the St John Ambulance Conditional Handicap Hurdle.

Sixteen crack sprinters go head-to-head in the Bet Direct Rated Stakes at Southwell, by far and away the best five-furlong contest to be run on the sand this winter.

The stars on parade include the Ayr Gold Cup winner Quito, 2002 Goodwood Stewards' Cup hero Bond Boy, plus Dancing Mystery and Steel Blue, first and second respectively in a hot race at Doncaster's November Handicap meeting.

On the downside, Quito's long hard season might be about to take its toll, while Bond Boy's hold-up style is not ideal in view of the likelihood of being battered black and blue by the kickback.

If those theories prove correct, it opens the door for Steel Blue (2.05) to get his revenge over Dancing Mystery, especially as Richard Whitaker's speedster now re-opposes on a mouth-watering 11lb better terms.

Leave the closing two miler to Spa Lane (3.40), fresh from out-staying an arguably much stronger set of rivals on turf at Nottingham.

The big plus point as far as Spa Lane's supporters go is the fact that he is even better on the all-weather compared to the grass, therefore with the invaluable assistance of his regular apprentice rider, Pat Gallagher, a bold showing from the evergreen ten-year-old can be confidently anticipated.

l Trainers Jonjo O'Neill and Paul Nicholls have warned that two of the market leaders for the Hennessy Cognac Gold Cup, Keen Leader and Strong Flow, are not certain runners.

O'Neill is thinking of re-routing Keen Leader to a clash with Best Mate in the Tote Peterborough Chase at Huntingdon on Saturday, while Strong Flow's handler Nicholls may switch his horse to a novice event at Newbury on Sunday week, the day after the big chase.

O'Neill is concerned about the prospect of withdrawals from the Newbury feature leading to the seven-year-old shouldering top weight.

''The way I see it this morning, if Kingsmark and Valley Henry come out he would be top weight, and then I'd have to say he'd be very doubtful,'' he said.

''It would be asking a lot of him to do that and I'd rather go to Huntingdon on Saturday. It would need the heavens to open, but if it did bucket down from here to the weekend then I'd give him a run there. But it would need to be soft.''

O'Neill's surprise news came as he gave Keen Leader a post-race workout at Towcester under his regular rider Liam Cooper, exercising over a circuit in company with two stable companions. Keen Leader is 6-1 in most books for the Hennessy, while Strong Flow was promoted to 5-1.