Matheson Hurdle (Grade 1)
STATE Man continued his march towards a likely clash with Constitution Hill at the Cheltenham Festival in March with a comprehensive victory in the Matheson Hurdle at Leopardstown.
Nicky Henderson’s Constitution Hill is long odds-on to lift the Champion Hurdle crown in March following his latest demolition job in the Christmas Hurdle at Kempton on Boxing Day. While Constitution Hill’s connections are unlikely to be overly fearful of State Man, his authoritative display today has given further evidence that he may well be Constitution Hill’s biggest threat.
State Man was a well-backed winner of the County Hurdle in the Cotswolds last season and successful on his reappearance in last month’s Morgiana Hurdle at Punchestown.
He lined up as one of three runners for Willie Mullins in the feature event on day four of Leopardstown’s Christmas Festival.
Sharjah, ridden by the champion trainer’s son Patrick, was bidding to better hurdling legends Istabraq and Hurricane Fly by winning a remarkable fifth successive Matheson Hurdle, and yet he was only third in the betting at 6/1 behind State Man at 4/6 and his Triumph Hurdle-winning stablemate Vauban at 11/4.
Rank outsider She Is Electric took the field along for much of the two-mile journey, but predictably folded before the home turn, at which stage Paul Townend allowed State Man to stride into the lead.
The strong-travelling Vauban travelled into his slipstream at the top of the straight, but State Man soon found another gear to pull clear by over four lengths.
Connections of Vauban will no doubt take plenty of encouragement from what was his first outing of the season and first start outside of juvenile company, while Sharjah was not disgraced in third.
State Man is now the 5/1 second favourite for the Champion Hurdle behind Constitution Hill who is the 2/7 favourite. Vauban, meanwhile, is a 10/1 shot.
State Man could now take on dual Champion Hurdle and three-time Irish Champion Hurdle-winning mare Honeysuckle in the latter contest at February’s Dublin Racing Festival.
Mullins said: “State Man just keeps improving and I think there is more improvement again after today. We were discussing where he goes next and the Dublin Racing Festival looks like the plan now.
When asked if he thought State Man could give Constitution Hill a race, he added: “We all have to turn up and we’ll hope for the best. We’re improving all the time.”
The Closutton handler was also pleased with the performances of the placed horses, saying: “It was a cracker of a run from Vauban, having his first run back. He’s only a four-year-old and people tend to forget that.
“Sharjah threw his chance away when he made the mistake at the second hurdle. I thought anything could happen with Sharjah as he loves this track, but the mistake put him out of the race and Patrick said he just wasn’t the same after that, you can’t do that in championship racing and get away with it.”