THE two opening hurdle races on Gold Cup day at Cheltenham both went the way of Willie Mullins and both horses - Vauban and State Man - are being spoken of as potential Champion Hurdle contenders for next season.

State Man (162) clocked the fastest overall time and now looks set for graded assignments at either Fairyhouse or Punchestown, while the final circuit time and closing sectionals posted by Vauban (139+) indicate he has the engine to match his older stablemate.

Taking the races in order, the Triumph was slowly run early even though the lead was contested by Porticello (111) and Fil Dor, so Vauban was never far away from the pace despite not being fluent at either of the first two hurdles.

The pace quickened as the field entered the back straight when Jamie Moore allowed his mount to stretch on, with the front-runners still holding a narrow advantage turning for home. However, they were a sitting duck to Vauban who hurdled with fluency, going a stride quicker, and cruised on to their heels without coming of the bridle.

The son of Galiway completed his closing sectional from the second last hurdle in 51.3secs and would have been quicker and won by further without his final-hurdle error. The visual impression created by how he quickened after the mistake illustrates his superiority over his peers in the juvenile division.

The gaps in the field opened after the last hurdle, despite there being five in line on the approach to the obstacle, so the closing efforts of Fil Dor (137) and Pied Piper (137) also command respect. In the absence of the winner, the Gordon Elliott pair would set a high standard in juvenile hurdles.

Strong pace

The pace was strong from flag fall in the County Hurdle as Stepney Causeway and Éclair De Beaufeu jousted for the lead. Both were eventually pulled up although any thought of there being a pace collapse is dismissed as First Street (160), Colonel Mustard (160) and My Mate Mozzie (151) all sat close to the speed before finishing prominently.

Paul Townend took no chances with State Man and was always wide to avoid any congestion and gain a good view of his hurdles. He allowed his mount to stroll into contention on the departure from the second last, doing just enough to grab the rail and follow the same route home as in the previous race aboard Vauban. On this occasion though there was no drama at the final flight as the son of Doctor Dino met the last on a perfect stride to complete his closing sectional in 51.9secs, 0.6secs slower than Vauban.

As the time-figure was so strong I would nominate the County Hurdle as a good starting point when looking for winners of similar contests at the other spring festivals.

First Street was closing at the line without ever convincing he would reach the winner. However, Nicky Henderson’s gelding was disadvantaged by the route he took to reach a challenging position compared to those placed immediately behind, so is worthy of a small upgrade. The son of Golden Horn has all the attributes to win a two-mile handicap of this stature.

Colonel Mustard was taking a step into the unknown and acquitted himself well in third. His form is littered with proven graded race performers so it will be a surprise if the seven-year-old is not up to winning a handicap at Fairyhouse or Punchestown, where he was second in a Grade 1 last season, especially if Lorna Fowler’s gelding is presented with softer ground.

To cement the time-figure, West Cork (158) improved marginally on his Greatwood Hurdle win and Suprise Package (153) was only a couple of lengths behind his Sandown win the previous Saturday. Ballyadam (155) ran his best race for some time and Morebattle Hurdle winner Cormier (153) stayed on with purpose after being denied a clear passage which came as a result of him not having the pace to hold his position.

I would also offer the run of Farout (151) as worthy of closer inspection as he finished off better than most from the rear of the field. The five-year-old has run well in graded contests at Fairyhouse and Leopardstown this season and looks to have a workable handicap mark.