State Man stronger than ever ahead of Champion Hurdle rematch

The chestnut is the yard’s leading hope in the feature race of the Cheltenham Festival’s opening day.

Willie Mullins believes State Man returns to Cheltenham a stronger runner this year as he tries to make up the deficit with the all-conquering Constitution Hill in the Unibet Champion Hurdle.

The Irish raider trailed home nine lengths adrift of Nicky Henderson’s National Hunt superstar last year, the only time he has been defeated in 11 completed hurdles starts.

State Man has added a further four Grade One triumphs to his record since that second place, most recently seeing off Bob Olinger by a comfortable five and a half lengths in the Irish Champion Hurdle – a race in which stablemate and familiar rival Impaire Et Passe failed to fire.

In contrast to State Man, Constitution Hill will head to the Festival having had just one run this term, but Mullins expects Henderson to have his defending champion at concert pitch nevertheless.

State Man was a cosy winner of the Irish Champion Hurdle
State Man was a cosy winner of the Irish Champion Hurdle (Niall Carson/PA)

“State Man will go for the Champion and I think he’s in great order,” he said.

“I didn’t talk to any of the time men after Leopardstown because I thought his performance at Christmas was huge against Impaire Et Passe who was much more competitive than he was the other day. Tactics were changed on Impaire but he was nearly a non-runner as far as I’m concerned, you could see after two hurdles.

“I don’t know if State Man was at his best in last year’s Champion, we’ll find out this year. He’s very good, he’ll be very race-fit but Nicky Henderson does have a habit of having his horses very right on the day when people think they haven’t raced enough, Nicky gets everything right for Cheltenham.

“We hope it will be a hell of a race, Nicky probably doesn’t and Constitution Hill fans probably don’t but we are stronger this year, I don’t know if better but stronger. I will leave tactics to Paul (Townend) but we’re happy to have him in the order which he is.”

Mullins has won the race four times already with Hurricane Fly (2011 and 2013), Faugheen (2015) and Annie Power (2016) and feels State Man brings different qualities to the table.

He added: “He hasn’t won a Champion Hurdle yet so he has a bit to catch up with those that have. He doesn’t have the pizzazz of Faugheen or the speed of Hurricane Fly but he has other things, he jumps well, he’s so consistent. Hopefully we can turn the tables this year.”

Lossiemouth has the Mares' Hurdle as her Festival target
Lossiemouth has the Mares’ Hurdle as her Festival target (Niall Carson/PA)

Constitution Hill is the 1-3 favourite with the race sponsor with State Man next best at 5-2 and then another Closutton inmate, Lossiemouth, a 12-1 shot.

She is much shorter with many other bookmakers, but her target is the two-and-a-half-mile Close Brothers Mares’ Hurdle, in which she is likely to be joined by Ashroe Diamond and Gala Marceau, with Champion entry Echoes In Rain also in the mix.

Lossiemouth hacked up in the Unibet Hurdle on Trials day at Cheltenham last month, prompting plenty of talk about whether the mare should be aimed at the main event.

However, Mullins is certain it is too early to pitch the five-year-old against the likes of Constitution Hill.

He said: “Lossiemouth hasn’t done anything wrong. I know a lot of people want her to go down the Champion Hurdle route, but I’m not even sure if there wasn’t a Mares’ Hurdle we’d go down that route with a five-year-old.

“In my lifetime a five-year-old usually wins once every 30 years and usually a bad year and this doesn’t look like it’s going to be a bad year for the Champion Hurdle. I don’t think the five-year-olds are physically strong enough.

“She did everything right the other day, maybe she needs longer, she’ll have other days to go at the Champion Hurdle. We’ll let State Man soften up Constitution Hill first and leave the door open for her!”

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