Warrior and born winner, State Man delivers day of pure joy

Willie Mullins praises jockey Paul Townend for showing admirable patience in slowest edition of race since 1979. But the day really belonged to groom Rachel Robins

Brough Scott

Tuesday March 12 2024, 8.45pm, The Times

The best time of their lives. Another great day for Willie Mullins and a red-letter afternoon for Joe and Marie Donnelly, but for State Man and his groom, Rachel Robins, this Champion Hurdle triumph was a day like no other.

When an odds-on favourite wins without either fuss or flourish as State Man duly did, it’s easy to be unimpressed. Especially as this Champion Hurdle was already being billed as “Hamlet without the Prince” owing to the absence of Constitution Hill, who had made State Man look positively leaden-footed last year.

True, Paul Townend looked thrilled enough at his first Champion Hurdle triumph and Mullins was a picture of winning-circle happiness, albeit he had been in this treasured spot 95 times already. The Donnellys beamed as only Cheltenham owners can, but just as they had done when Townend had twice brought their yellow and black silks home in the Gold Cup on the Mullins-trained Al Boum Photo. For Robins it was a whole different dimension.

She had looked after State Man at Closutton since he had arrived as a lanky chestnut three-year-old, having been second in his only race at Auteuil in May 2020. She had led him up in all his 13 races since. She had been thrilled when he won the County Hurdle here in 2022, a touch disappointed when he was a distant second to Constitution Hill, and she had been horrified when her pride and joy turned a somersault at Leopardstown’s second-last hurdle on his first run for her and the Mullins team in December 2021.

State Man has proved himself a warrior. This was the 11th time he and Robins have come back to the winner’s enclosure and it’s worth recording that he has won more grade one events than Constitution Hill has actually run races. What’s more, however predictable in hindsight, this was still a Champion Hurdle that had to be won and in these conditions it was never going to be a procession.

The overnight downpour had made the ground so heavy that the winning time of 4min 13sec was the slowest clocked since Dessie Hughes inspired the little round-legged hero that was Monksfield to outslog the mighty Sea Pigeon on a muddy March day in 1979. It didn’t matter how Townend did it. Winning was the thing.

In the event he surprised even Mullins and won even more admirers with his patience. No one was going to do him any favours so he settled State Man back along the rail as Not So Sleepy made the running along with Nemean Lion and the fancied Gordon Elliott-trained grey Irish Point close up.

The pace was so slow that the field was still tightly packed at the second last as Irish Point took over, with his jockey, Jack Kennedy, rather hoping that Townend might continue up the inside and give him a chance of trapping him. But Townend rode his first Festival winner in 2011 and has had 30 more since. He was never going to fall for that.

Outside he swung State Man, and at once that you saw that the long chestnut had the legs of his grey rival. Irish Point under full sail was an impressive sight but Kennedy’s arms were beginning to pump while Townend was a still and deadly figure as he sent his partner into and over the last hurdle.

He was always going to be quicker and he duly took a couple of lengths out of his rival. Under these conditions he could not manage more. Ability is one thing, honesty adds to it, and on the stretch, with that long neck reaching out for the line, State Man is the very symbol of honesty in our all too often dishonest world.

“He’s a simple horse to ride,” Townend said afterwards. “On the ground I probably could have waited a bit longer but I never doubted his stamina either. He’s an old favourite of mine and deserved a big day like this.”

It’s a long time since the jockey was seen as merely Ruby Walsh’s understudy and he was duly praised by the man with whom he has spent his whole career. “When a jockey is riding with confidence they can do things like that,” Mullins, who two races earlier had seen Townend storm home in the Arkle Chase on the highly strung Gaelic Warrior, said. “He’s a fantastic jockey and that ride today was superb.”

Robins is also the groom for Gaelic Warrior. Leading in State Man was taking her into a racing stratosphere and it showed. Happiness is warmest to those closest to the horse

The guy himself was thirsty when he got back up to the dope box, thrusting his muzzle into the water bucket and sucking it with a force that made you realise how much effort had been spent in those four-plus minutes of distance run.

Robins’s family are sheep farmers in Devon. As a girl she pointed to the hills on which a local trainer, Victor Dartnall, had his gallops and told her mother, “One day I will be riding up there.”

For nearly ten years she had her wish, then decided she should give Ireland a try. “I thought, ‘Why not go for the best?’ ” she said. “So I googled the number and Willie said, ‘Come over after the summer.’ That was nine years ago, but this guy is the best I have had.”

As she held State Man’s head she pointed to an indent high on the right side of his temple. “That’s where he was hit in that pile-up on his first run at Leopardstown,” she said. “He had got up all right but when we got back to the stables blood starting gushing out of his nostrils.”

The drama passed and now State Man and Robins stood as pictures of triumph, the horse with the wool earplugs he wears for racing now dangling from his bridle. “He was too keen at Leopardstown so he has worn these ever since,” Robins said. “But he’s lovely to deal with. Gaelic Warrior [who had worn a hood to calm him on Tuesday], now he’s a nob. This guy’s a dude.”

But in racing happiness is always matched with disappointments. A year ago Nico de Boinville was the very last to return to the unsaddling enclosure as he and Constitution Hill walked back with the cheers cascading down.

On Tuesday he was first up the chute, Iberico Lord having comprehensively failed to handle the Champion Hurdle test. His muddied, impassive face turned briefly to where Robins was haring up to hug the horse of a lifetime. It had been their day.

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