MICKY Hammond’s Grade One winner Cornerstone Lad is the sole Northern entry in this year’s Unibet Champion Hurdle – the traditional day one highlight of the Cheltenham Festival.
Mary Lofthouse’s horse, who was a shock winner of Newcastle’s prestigious Fighting Fifth Hurdle under an inspired Henry Brooke, is due to reappear at Haydock this Saturday.
However the six-year-old is a soft ground specialist and Middleham-based Hammond has previously intimated that the ground is key to the horse who is likely to go chasing next season.
Brooke’s bold frontrunning tactics caught his rivals off guard and Cornerstone Lad just held off dual Champion Hurdle hero Buveur D’Air in a pulsating finish.
In doing so, Buveur D’Air sustained an injury when hitting the penultimate flight and does not feature amongst trainer Nicky Henderson’s five entries as he seeks a seventh win in the race.
Henderson’s best chance, in a wide open division, appears to be the JP McManus-owned Epatante after the mare was an impressive winner of the Christmas Hurdle at Kempton on Boxing Day.
Meanwhile, Evan Williams intends to run last year’s Champion Hurdle third Silver Streak who was amongst the illustrious names to have been beaten by Cornerstone Lad at Newcastle.
“Silver Streak is in good order and the Champion Hurdle is the target,” said Williams, who trains in Wales. “It is likely that he will go straight there, though the Kingwell at Wincanton is a possibility beforehand.
“He ran really well in the Christmas Hurdle (runner-up to Epatante) and keeps running with credit in these big two-mile hurdles. With a bit of luck, hopefully he could be placed in the Champion Hurdle again.”
The 36 entries also feature Flat trainer Hughie Morrison’s progressive Not So Sleepy who was a commanding winner at Ascot last month under jockey Jonathan Burke.
Meanwhile, Tom Queally, the jockey who partnered Sir Henry Cecil’s all-conquering Frankel to 14 famous successes in the Flat, has another notable ride under National Hunt rules today.
Queally, whose rides on the Flat have diminished in the post-Frankel era, teams up with The Getaway Star in the Alan Swinbank Mares’ Standard Open National Hunt Flat Race which honours the late Richmond trainer
Trained by Queally’s father Declan, The Getaway Star has won two out of her three races to date, but does need to put a disappointing run at Navan last time out behind her.
Though this is effectively a Flat conest for future jump horses to gain valuable racecourse experience, Queally did ride a winner over hurdles at Tramore on New Year’s Day for the family operation.
The jockey’s brother, also called Declan, is assistant to his father and said: “She didn’t run her race last time, but any horse can have a blip. She’s in good form, has travelled over well and has no penalty for winning two bumpers, so she must have a good chance.
“Part of the thinking in sending her over is that she likes decent ground and Market Rasen tends not to get so deep – also she prefers going right-handed so it’s worth a shot. Tom was over at Christmas and rode her out every day he was here and he’s really looking forward to riding her.
“I told Tom to get his National Hunt licence out because the plan was to run her in a UK bumper. It’s difficult for a young mare to travel over, but we’re hopeful.”
Ireland’s champion trainer Willie Mullins also has his first runner at the track with the newcomer Panic Attack.