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.
And while connections of the unbeaten five-year-old are unlikely to be quaking in their boots, State Man gave further evidence he may well prove his biggest threat with an authoritative display.
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, State Man 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 four and a quarter lengths clear.
Connections of Vauban will doubtless 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 unchanged at 4-1 with Coral for the Champion Hurdle, who make Constitution Hill their 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.
“Hopefully we don’t get any setbacks, the horses have been coming out of Leopardstown well over the last few days, and we’ll look forward to that and then maybe going over to Cheltenham in March.”
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.
“I was very pleased with that. He’ll probably have another run and then we’ll see if he’s good enough to go to Cheltenham. On today’s run, I’m very happy that he’s progressed and is coming along nicely.
“He travelled very sweet, all the rest of the horses had runs. For his first run in championship company against older horses, I thought it was excellent. He’s way ahead of where I thought he was.
“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.”