Towards the end of a near hour-long chat through his team for the Cheltenham Festival, Willie Mullins was asked for the name of a horse who could surprise people in March.
He thought for a second and replied: “You’ve been listening to me for the last half or so, some people can often take my tone of voice or how I answer a question and come up with a better answer than I would. Sometimes people just read stuff into what I say which is fascinating to me – and they’re right. That gets me at times!"
So here's my go. I think the Closutton team think they’ll get closer to Constitution Hill in the Unibet Champion Hurdle than they did 12 months ago.
The statement obviously has a couple of caveats attached: 1. They need to - he was nine lengths adrift in 2023 after all; 2. It isn’t down to any perceived cracks in the current title-holder, it’s more to do with the feeling (Paul Townend's, on reflection) that State Man didn’t quite deliver his A-game that afternoon.
On Timeform ratings he ran to 161. Six pounds below his career-best figure, which he has matched the last twice at Leopardstown.
Beating an on-song Constitution Hill would be beyond him – 177 for the Supreme and 175 for last year’s Champion show that - but if State Man can find a little more and hit the 170 mark, say, it gives the lesser-spotted reigning champion a good deal less wiggle room. Not that Mullins was saying he wasn’t at his best in 2023, mind.
“I don’t know, we’ll find out this year. We’ve a lot more experience into him now and we go there race fit. However, Nicky Henderson has a habit of getting his horses right on the day,” he pondered as Galopin Des Champs was being prepared for a photo shoot with his Champion Hurdle-bound stablemate in the box behind.
“We hope it’s going to be a hell of a race. Constitution Hill fans might not think so, but I think we’re stronger this year, I don’t know if we’re better, but we’re stronger.
"I'll leave the tactics to Paul and will chat before the race but at the moment we’re just happy to have the horse in as good order as he is, and we want to get him there in that order. That’s the plan."
The defeat last March was State Man's only one when he’s completed over hurdles. His Grade One tally stands at eight and counting. He’ll have two more shots at adding hurdling’s blue riband to his glittering CV even if he has a little further to go to surpass the achievements of some of those who came before in these parts.
“He hasn’t won one yet. He'll have a crack this year and maybe next but has a bit to catch up. He certainly doesn’t have the class of Faugheen or the speed of Hurricane Fly, but he has other things. He’s so consistent on the track and at home,” Mullins mused.
Echoes In Rain, “if there looks like only being five or six runners”, could join State Man in the big race but Lossiemouth will have to wait her turn.
“She hasn’t done anything wrong. I know a lot of people would like to see us go down the Champion Hurdle route but I’m not even sure if there wasn’t a mares’ hurdle there, we’d go down that route. In my lifetime, growing up anyway, five-year-olds win once every 25 to 30 years and usually in a bad year. This doesn’t look to be a bad year in the Champion Hurdle,” the trainer said.
“Other people say very few five-year-olds go in it, but I’ve seen them all over the years, the ones that matter go for it, the Triumph Hurdle winners from the previous year. They were very good juveniles but just can’t lie up, they’re just not physically strong enough. It’s the way I take it anyway.
“She did everything right at Cheltenham the other day. Maybe she’s stronger but she’ll have her chance in the next few years to have a go at the Champion Hurdle and we’ll let State Man soften up Constitution Hill first and leave the door open for her!”
If Lossiemouth was in other hands, then there’s every chance she’d have turned up in the opening-day feature. Mullins, because of his strength in depth, can afford to wait. But he stresses that he hasn’t arrived in this position through mere spending power.
“We’re very lucky to have the team we have but we buy horses from a selection of areas, France, English point-to-points, Irish point-to-pointers, the odd bumper horse and some stores. Those horses are available for everyone. Maybe we just get a bit luckier, maybe our riding team is good but it’s not as if we go in and plunder all the horses out of France, or out of England, or the point-to-points. We seldom partake in those sales so I don’t know what to say. We just do what we do,” he said.
“I didn’t want this many horses, I didn’t envisage having this many horses, the opposition kept putting up their number and I thought to stay relevant I must go and get as big as them. That’s in Ireland. To stay on par here we built more stables. I didn’t want to. I was very happy where I was with 100-plus horses, and it’s grown way bigger than I envisaged."
Stronger too – the recent golden era has catapulted Mullins to within six winners of a remarkable century at the Cheltenham Festival.
"People thought I’d get to that mark last year and, with these things, often actually doing it is very hard. We’ve gone one and two days at Cheltenham without a winner. No one is gifted them there. You can forget how hard it is to win at the meeting, how hard it is to get your position at the first or second hurdle as you watch your riders bashed as they go down to the hurdles and fences. Everyone is so hyped up when they get to Cheltenham.
“It’s so tough. We don’t go there expecting to win – we hope to win. We have 12 favourites right now. I say when you have a winner any day that’s a good day – but at least six of those will be beaten. I don’t know which ones, but I’d be delighted if six of them won. It doesn’t always work out.
“Last year we had six and thankfully they included the big one which helped paper over the cracks of what might have been a disappointing week."
There’s pressure on Mullins at Cheltenham. A team of over 60 horses is likely to board the ferry, at least a dozen favourites and expectations that soar higher than they’ve ever done before for any other trainer.
But State Man is a free hit. A horse no one really expects to win. The pressure is off with him. But even so, you sense it doesn’t mean he goes there with zero expectations attached either.
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