HEXHAM'S Northumberland National represents just the sort of stamina test relished by Huka Lodge (1.50).

With the ground forecast on the soft side, it's going to be hard graft for the 13 runners, but that won't worry Huka Lodge who uncharacteristically unshipped his jockey, Bruce Gibson, during a Wetherby pipe-opener in October.

Clearly none the worse for that tumble, Len Lungo's eight-year-old proved today's stern examination was his forte when hosing up at the course over three miles in a bog last April.

Getting into trainer's minds is half the battle, and it doesn't take Scotland Yard's finest to deduce Lungo has prepared Huka Lodge specifically for this afternoon's four-mile marathon, one of the most valuable contests ever run at the track.

In the preceding ATR Handicap Hurdle, Ireland's Eye (1.20) makes stacks of appeal having shown his turn was near by finishing third at Leicester last time out.

Although John Norton's tiny ten-year-old finished second off a 99 rating in the self-same race 12 months ago, he's drawn a blank since and as a consequence of that losing sequence has been dropped to a winning mark of 95.

Prolific sprint scorer, Celtic Mill (2.40), appears to be on the brink of an inaugural triumph at Southwell in the £20,000 Littlewoods Bet Direct Handicap.

David Barker's stable-star holds Doncaster's five-furlong record, quite a feat when taking in to account all of the high-class speedsters to have plied their trade on the Town during the past couple of centuries.

Trying to compare and contrast turf and sand form is an inexact science chockfull of pitfalls, however Celtic Mill is rated 14lbs lower on the fibre-sand, a huge differential which could help him to secure the sought-after five-furlong prize.

Stretton (3.15), who took maximum advantage of a similar handicap anomaly at Wolverhampton a week ago, is fancied to follow-up in the mile-and-a-half Handicap.

The James Bethell-trained seven-year-old scythed his way through the pack on that occasion, not seeming to mind the kickback in the least. Despite Stretton picking up a 6lbs penalty for the victory, he clocked a really fast time and will be hard to stop under expert guidance from Graham Gibbons in the saddle.

The amazing Monte Cristo (1.30) bids to become one of the few horses to have won on all three all-weather tracks when facing the starter for the two-mile Interactive Handicap.

Over the past couple of seasons Monte Cristo has been busy paying his way in the steeplechase arena, scoring no less than four times. By a stroke of pure genius connections then decided to try him on the level, the gelding rewarding their faith with back-to-back victories at Lingfield and Wolverhampton.

Those two polytrack venues ride far faster than Southwell, nevertheless Monte Cristo acted extremely well on heavy ground in the National Hunt sphere and there seems no reason why he won't handle the fibre-sand.

For the finale, pace-setting Mademoiselle (3.45) may prove impossible to peg back in the closing one-mile contest.

Barry Hills has always been a dab hand at training fillies and he demonstrated his magic touch once again by producing the selection to open her account on a recent trip to Brighton

Mademoiselle handles easy ground, so the fibre-sand shouldn't hinder the progressive daughter of Efisio, whose stock have shown themselves to be thoroughly game and genuine at distances from five-furlongs to two-miles and beyond.

* Beef Or Salmon put himself on course for the first leg of the Betfair Million by delighting connections in a gallop yesterday.

Trainer Michael Hourigan is now relishing the prospect of his stable star taking on totesport Cheltenham Gold Cup hero Kicking King, impressive Charlie Hall Chase victor Ollie Magern and company in the Betfair Chase at Haydock Park on Saturday.

''He worked well over a mile and six furlongs and we are all ready to go now,'' said the Limerick trainer.

''We'll give him a pop over a fence in the morning and he'll probably travel to England on Thursday morning.''