MICKY HAMMOND knows how hard it is to train a Grade One winner – it took him nearly 30 years before Cornerstone Lad’s ‘catch me if you can’ tactics paid off last time out in Newcastle’s historic Fighting Fifth Hurdle.
Now he hopes that this horse, owned by the ever enthusiastic Mary Lofthouse, can prove that this slightly surprising success was no fluke when lining up in today’s Haydock’s Champion Hurdle Trial at the Merseyside track.
A strong showing will put the horse, the mount of Henry Brooke, in contention for the Champion Hurdle itself at the Cheltenham Festival in March – but Hammond says that soft, or heavy going, is a prerequisite for the six-year-old.
Yet, in many respects, Cornerstone Lad epitomises the genial Hammond’s modus operandi as the former jump jockey reflects on a run of form that also saw his stable celebrate a landmark 1,000th success when Enfil Phin won at Catterick last week.
“I bought him at the Doncaster Goffs Breeze Up Sales in 2016 as an unraced two-year-old,” Hammond told The Yorkshire Post yesterday. “He was a bit gangly – he was going to take time – but he was affordable and I think we paid £9,000 for him.
“A lot of people at these sales are looking for the sharper, more precocious types who can go to Royal Ascot and Glorious Goodwood – he was never going to be one of them. But I liked the horse and his sire Delegator.
“I was buying potential. When you’re wheeling and dealing at the bottom end of the market, you are trying to buy ‘value for money’ for your owners. We had a great day at Newcastle, winning the Fighting Fifth. We are looking forward to Haydock, but we know the opposition is strong.”
This is illustrated by the fact that Cornerstone Lad’s rivals Pentland Hills, Ballyandy and Darasso are trained by Nicky Henderson, Nigel Twiston-Davies and Joseph O’Brien respectively, a triumvirate at the very top of the training game. Yet this should not diminish from Hammond’s own achievements. Born in Guildford, he started from scratch.
“When I left school at 16 with no exams I was five foot tall and weighed seven stone. I had never sat on a horse, pony or donkey but decided I wanted to be a jockey,” he said,
“I wrote to Brian Swift at Epsom for a job. Before that, the local milk lady had mentioned to a small trainer near Guildford called ‘Buck’ Jones, what I wanted to do. Jones said if I came up at weekends and did some mucking out and sweeping up he would teach me to ride. That’s what happened.”
The then rookie became a successful rider – he was very unlucky with injury – before moving to Yorkshire and teaming up with the then Middleham trainer George Moore. After one broken leg too many, he took out his training licence on January 1, 1990.
“I would say it (training) has got harder,” said Hammond who saddled two winners at Market Rasen on Thursday when Willie Mullins, Ireland’s multiple champion trainer, also had his first runner (and winner) at the Lincolnshire track. “It is so professional these days. Horses are fitter going to the races. People are very good at placing their horses. People are not afraid to travel – and now they’re coming over from Ireland for ordinary races.”
Asked if he gained more pleasure from winning races as a jockey or trainer, Hammond said: “It’s got to be training – there’s a lot more planning and it is everything that myself, and my team, do.”
Yet this self-belief meant he was not perturbed by the presence of dual Champion Hurdle hero Buveur D’Air in Fighting Fifth line-up and became hopeful that Cornerstone Lad’s lead was a winning one. “Just watching the race, I thought Henry was giving him a super ride,” he added.
“He picked up at the right time and then the horse battled well to the winning line. It was the first time the horse had made all and we now need to see if we can confirm the form. But it was a special day for all concerned. Yorkshire-owned. A Yorkshire jockey. And trained in Yorkshire by a lad from Surrey.”
And well worth the wait.