Cornerstone Lad bids to prove his shock November victory at Newcastle was no fluke by following up in The New One Unibet Hurdle at Haydock on Saturday.
Dual Champion Hurdle hero Buveur D’Air was widely expected to become the third three-time winner in the history of the Fighting Fifth Hurdle, but largely unconsidered 16-1 shot Cornerstone Lad made much of the running and clung on by a short head to cause a major upset.
It subsequently came to light Buveur D’Air had suffered a season-ending injury, but Cornerstone Lad emerged with credit, having provided both his trainer Micky Hammond and jockey Henry Brooke with their first taste of Grade One glory.
With conditions due to be similarly testing at Haydock on Saturday, Hammond is expecting another bold show.
“We’re very pleased with Cornerstone Lad – he is in great form,” said the Middleham-based trainer.
“This race has really been the intention since he won the Fighting Fifth and it looks the right race to run in.
“Hopefully he’s improved again since and ground conditions look to have come right. He likes a bit of dig in the ground and that will suit.
“Henry Brooke is down to ride and hopefully he can do us proud again.”
The likely favourite for the recognised Champion Hurdle trial is the Nicky Henderson-trained Pentland Hills.
Last season’s Triumph Hurdle hero suffered his first defeat in four starts over jumps when fifth behind stablemate Call Me Lord in last month’s International at Cheltenham, but travelled like the winner for much of the way and is expected to strip fitter for the outing.
“I’m very much looking forward to him. He seems to be doing his work very well,” said jockey Nico de Boinville.
“I worked him on Tuesday morning. He seems in great order. It’s all systems go.
“He looks a different animal now (since Cheltenham). He’s come in his coat and he looks fantastic.
“I’m looking forward to seeing him run.”
Having saddled former stable star The New One to claim this prize four times, trainer Nigel Twiston-Davies bids to add to his tally with the ultra consistent Ballyandy.
The nine-year-old was beaten just a neck into second place by Call Me Lord in the International and subsequently finished third in the Christmas Hurdle at Kempton on Boxing Day.
Twiston-Davies said: “It would be lovely to win the race again and hopefully Ballyandy has a good chance.
“He’s in good form, he’s been running consistently well all season and I don’t think the ground will bother him.”
The small but select field is completed by Joseph O’Brien’s Irish challenger Darasso.
The JP McManus-owned seven-year-old was a runaway winner of the the Red Mills Trial Hurdle at Gowran Park in February last year before returning to fences to win the Webster Cup at Navan the following month.
Darasso has not been seen in competitive action since the latter of those victories 306 days ago.
Frank Berry, the owner’s racing manager, said: “Joseph is very happy with him and he won’t mind the ground.
“It’s a competitive race, but the horse is in good form and we’re hoping he’ll run a good race.
“We’ll know a bit more about where we’re going afterwards, hopefully.”