Paul Townend is looking forward to being reunited with the “exceptional” State Man in the Chanelle Pharma Irish Champion Hurdle at Leopardstown on Sunday.

Since falling on his Irish debut over two years ago, the Willie Mullins-trained seven-year-old has won nine of his 10 starts, his only defeat coming at the hands of Constitution Hill in the Champion Hurdle at last season’s Cheltenham Festival.

On his most recent outing, he readily accounted for a high-class stablemate in Impaire Et Passe when winning his second successive Matheson Hurdle at Leopardstown’s Christmas meeting.

Townend guided the latter, who is set to be in opposition again this weekend, to four successive victories last season, but he insists the decision to side with State Man was straightforward.

“I love him, he’s been very, very good to me. Bar the one day we fell in a maiden hurdle in Leopardstown, he’s been exceptional,” said the Irish champion jockey.

“I just found it very hard to desert State Man (at Christmas) – I thought it would be a lot worse standing in the number two spot looking at State Man winning than standing in the number two spot looking at Impaire Et Passe.

“He duly obliged and he’s just such a straightforward horse and a class horse to be involved with.

“Bar Constitution Hill, he’s the best around, I think.”

State Man will be long odds-on to bag his second Irish Champion Hurdle on day two of the Dublin Racing Festival, having dethroned Honeysuckle with an all-the-way victory 12 months ago.

As well as Impaire Et Passe, Mullins could saddle Matheson Hurdle third Echoes In Rain, while Henry de Bromhead will be hoping Bob Olinger can continue his resurgence following an impressive display in the Relkeel Hurdle at Cheltenham on New Year’s Day.

Gordon Elliott’s Fils D’oudairies, last of four in the Matheson Hurdle, completes the potential field.

Paul Townend hit back with a treble of his own at Fairyhouse in his effort to keep tabs on Jack Kennedy in the battle to be champion jockey.

Kennedy moved 19 clear with a four-timer at Down Royal on Tuesday but just 24 hours later that was back down to 16, as Townend partnered three of his boss Willie Mullins’ four winners at the rescheduled meeting.

Spread Boss Ted (2-5 favourite) had to be ridden right out to justify cramped odds in the Easter Festival March 30th – April 1st Novice Hurdle, in which Kennedy’s mount Binge Worthy was a bitter disappointment and finished a tailed off last of four.

“I went out to settle him and thought I was after doing too good of a job at halfway!” said Townend.

Spindleberry (5-2) looked the Mullins second string in the HAY “How Are Ya” Campaign Mares Maiden Hurdle behind the Mark Walsh-ridden Jolie Coeur Allen but she was an impressive winner, with the favourite only third.

“Coming off a break, that will knock the freshness out of her and she showed a very willing attitude to stay going after being as keen as she was for the first mile of the race,” said Townend.

“She’s lightly-raced too and only had one run in a bumper, so I think she’ll improve away.”

O’Moore Park (8-11 favourite) brought up Townend’s treble with a nine-length win in the Fairyhouse Supporting Treo Eile Maiden Hurdle.

Townend said: “He benefitted from the run the last day, which knocked the freshness out of him and brought him on.

“He’s a chaser – he’s no respect for a hurdle when he meets one wrong.

“On that ground, to pick up like he did when I gave him a squeeze at the back of the last was nice. He’s progressing away and is going to be a chaser.

“I think he can go further.”

Walsh did get on the scoresheet himself when Mirazur West (8-11 favourite), a full-brother to high-class-but-fragile stablemate Ferny Hollow, won the Easter Festival Early Bird Maiden Hurdle.

There was a sad postscript to the race, with Gordon Elliott’s D B Cooper, the winner’s main market rival, suffering a fatal injury.

Mirazur West was left unchanged at 14-1 for the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle by Paddy Power and Betfair.

“He’s still learning and settled a lot better today than he did in Leopardstown,” said Walsh.

“He’s well able to jump, there is no issue with that anyway, it’s just keeping him relaxed.

“I only found out when I pulled up that Jack’s horse had gone wrong. It takes away from the race and is very unfortunate.”

Paul Townend will have an enviable book of rides at the Dublin Racing Festival as he seeks to find the top novice prospects to partner alongside proven stars.

The two-day meeting was created in 2018 and has quickly become a real highlight of the National Hunt calendar, with eight Grade One races across the weekend including the Irish Gold Cup and Irish Champion Hurdle.

Willie Mullins is guaranteed to field a powerful team of horses and as stable jockey, Townend has the pick of the bunch when it comes to selecting his rides.

In the novice ranks, where horses are yet to assert themselves in a clear hierarchy, this leaves the rider with a few tricky choices to make as the meeting, run on February 3 and 4, approaches.

“I’m trying to sit on as many as I can and see what’s going well,” he said.

“Especially the novices, because they can step forward so much, like the two-mile novice hurdle that was run at Christmas as an example (Paddy Power Future Champions Novice Hurdle).

“We’re still in the dark about what probably is our best. Daddy Long Legs didn’t turn up on the day. He could win at Leopardstown in February and he didn’t show up at all at Christmas. I thought I’d know a bit more coming out of Christmas, and I don’t.”

Another example the rider offers is El Fabiolo, a 10-length winner of the Goffs Irish Arkle last season when Townend had opted to ride the third-placed Appreciate It instead.

He said: “Then there’s the novice chasers. Last year, El Fabiolo showed up, I chose the wrong one. Novices can progress at different rates.”

Though there is this element of the unknown with less experienced horses, Townend generally views it as a positive rather than a negative as runners can improve significantly and sometimes unexpectedly as they progress.

“When they do something you’re not expecting it’s fantastic,” he said.

“The other side is the disappointment of the one you think is going to build and keep building throughout the year and it just peters out.

“At the very start of my career, as an 18-year-old, I had Hurricane Fly winning my first Grade One in the Royal Bond. So I probably always loved what might happen with the novices.”

While there will be decisions to be made regarding his novice rides, there is no question Townend will partner proven top horses like State Man and Galopin Des Champs.

State Man, a favourite of Townend’s, is odds-on for the Chanelle Pharma Irish Champion Hurdle, a race he won by nearly five lengths from Honeysuckle last season.

“He just turns up every time. You can rely on him,” he said.

“You can make the running if nothing else will or you can sit in behind. He just shows up and runs his race most of the time.

“He jumps, he gallops and he tries hard for you. I just get a great kick out of winning on him, I must say, and doing it for the Donnellys (owners) adds to that.”

Galopin Des Champs returned to winning ways in the Savills Chase after two beaten runs behind Fastorslow previously, and Townend is confident the reigning Cheltenham Gold Cup winner can hold his own to retain his Paddy Power Irish Gold Cup title.

“He’s doing well and everything has gone well since the Savills Chase at Leopardstown at Christmas,” he said.

“He probably had a little bit to prove that day after losing twice, although we never lost faith in him and he was showing us all the same things at home. But that performance was as good as anything he had ever done before and if he were to repeat that every day, that would be good enough for me!

“It will be a strong race for definite and Fastorslow is obviously a big danger again but there hasn’t been all that much between them in the Punchestown Gold Cup and the John Durkan. I’d be confident if Galopin is firing, he would take all the beating.”

Paul Townend is still savouring a “massive performance” from Galopin Des Champs in last week’s Savills Chase at Leopardstown.

The reigning Cheltenham Gold Cup hero lined up in the Grade One feature with something to prove following successive defeats at the hands of Fastorslow at Punchestown, but bounced back to his very best with a hugely impressive 23-length victory.

Townend admits Fastorslow’s withdrawal on the morning of the race undoubtedly made his task easier, but feels the Willie Mullins-trained Galopin Des Champs would have proved a tough nut to crack in any case.

“Galopin Des Champs had a lot of questions to answer after his defeats at the Punchestown Festival and in the John Durkan, but he put in a huge performance at Leopardstown,” he said in his Ladbrokes blog.

“I rode him differently, he seemed to be very sweet, and he jumped brilliantly. Fastorslow was a non-runner on the day, and it’s impossible to know what would have happened if he turned up. However, Galopin Des Champs put up an absolutely massive performance and he would have been very hard to beat.

“I can’t wait to get back on him. Willie will probably bring him to the Dublin Racing Festival (Irish Gold Cup) and then onto to Cheltenham for the Gold Cup.

“It is disappointing when big names get beaten but it makes it all the sweeter and more enjoyable when they do come back and perform at the level they are capable of.”

Galopin Des Champs was one of five winners across two days at Leopardstown for the champion jockey, with the other major highlight being the victory of State Man in the Matheson Hurdle.

Many viewed his stablemate Impaire Et Passe as a major threat in the two-mile Grade One, but State Man swatted him aside with relative ease, ensuring the only horse to have beaten him when he has completed since joining the Mullins team is the mighty Constitution Hill in last year’s Champion Hurdle at Cheltenham.

Townend added: “State Man just turns up and wins. He is a joy to ride.

“He is one of my favourite horses. He had a big task on his hands with Impaire Et Passe, but actually beat him snug enough come the line.

“Without Constitution Hill, he would be a real champion. He is probably not getting the credit he deserves because of that horse.”

Perhaps the most notable reverse for Townend over the festive period came aboard hot favourite Allaho in the King George VI Chase at Kempton on Boxing Day.

While far from disgraced in being beaten just under two lengths into third place, the rider admits he left the Sunbury circuit a shade disappointed.

He said: “I had a great spin around in the King George on Allaho. I really enjoyed it. It was my first time at Kempton and it was a really good experience.

“Shishkin departing at the second last felt like I was gifted a present, but by the time we landed at the back of the last, it was short lived.

“Hewick flew home and pushed Bravemansgame past me for second to take more money from us. It was a big run from Allaho. Did he stay? It is hard to know. He was outstayed by two really good horses.

“I couldn’t have had a better race, it all worked out perfectly, so I was disappointed to have been given a present and then have it taken away from me.

“It was a brilliant race to be a part of. The atmosphere was massive and they are the days you want to be involved with.”

Facile Vega proved a bitter disappointment as Found A Fifty claimed Grade One honours in the Racing Post Novice Chase at Leopardstown.

Having struck gold at the highest level in the bumper sphere and over hurdles, the Willie Mullins-trained Facile Vega was the 1-2 favourite to complete the set following a comfortable victory on his chasing debut at Navan last month.

With Paul Townend making the trip to Kempton to partner Allaho in the King George, Patrick Mullins was reunited with Facile Vega for the first time since he rounded off his unbeaten bumper campaign in the spring of 2022, but odds-on backers were ultimately left counting their losses.

Gordon Elliott’s Found A Fifty, who won on his fencing bow at Down Royal before chasing home I Am Maximus in the Drinmore at Fairyhouse three weeks ago, was unsurprisingly ridden aggressively by Jack Kennedy as he stepped back from two and a half miles to two miles and a furlong on the outskirts of Dublin.

The six-year-old showed a tendency to edge right at his fences, impeding Facile Vega on a couple of occasions, which prompted Patrick Mullins to switch inside racing down the back straight and he soon took over the lead.

Facile Vega looked to be travelling the better of the pair rounding the home turn, but while he faltered quickly to finish last of four runners, Found A Fifty kept galloping for Kennedy and passed the post with a length and a half in hand over My Mate Mozzie.

“He’s very quirky, but he’s got a massive engine,” Elliott said of the winner.

“To get a Grade One winner is brilliant as it looked like we were unlucky in Aintree (Farren Glory fell in Formby Novices’ Hurdle).

“Jack gave Found A Fifty a wonderful ride. He had to use his head everywhere as he even went to have a look at the rail after the first fence.

“He’s a good horse. He was actually the highest-rated novice chaser in England or Ireland coming into the race today but there is a quirk in him – most good ones have a little bit of a quirk.”

Elliott was also keen to praise his stable jockey, who has suffered more than his fair share of injuries in recent years.

The trainer added: “Jack is different class. He’s just a lovely fella. At home you wouldn’t even pick him out in the string. He’d ride a horse leg length and be nagging and twisting. He’s just a bit different.

“We’re very lucky to have him, holding onto him and keeping him in one piece now would be the problem.”

Sa Fureur profited from the final fence exit of red-hot favourite Hunters Yarn to open his account over fences in the Irish Stallion Farms EBF Beginners Chase at Fairyhouse.

The top-class pair of Blue Lord and El Fabiolo had landed the last two runnings of the extended two-mile contest for trainer Willie Mullins, jockey Paul Townend and owners Simon Munir and Isaac Souede, and Hunters Yarn was a 1-3 shot to make it a hat-trick for all concerned on his chasing bow.

A three-time bumper winner and twice successful over hurdles, Hunters Yarn looked to have victory in the bag after cruising to the front but blundered badly and crashed out at the last obstacle.

Gordon Elliott’s Sa Fureur, who had fallen on his fencing bow behind Mullins-trained star Facile Vega at Navan four weeks ago, was left in splendid isolation following Hunters Yarn’s tumble and came home with 40 lengths in hand over the eventual runner-up Byker under Jack Kennedy.

“He was a fortunate winner, but he was going to be a nice second and was running a good race,” Elliott said afterwards.

“I just hope the faller is okay, we had a bit of luck on our side – if you haven’t luck at this game, you have nothing.

“Jack said he showed a good attitude. We’ll probably look at one of those rated novice chases, or we could step him into a handicap.”

Elliott and Kennedy doubled up in the Hytech EQ Ultra 3-Y-O Maiden Hurdle, with Pacini justifying 5-4 favouritism with relative ease.

The three-year-old set the standard on jumping form, after finishing fifth and fourth respectively on his first two attempts, and he made it third time lucky with a six-and-a-half-length verdict.

Elliott added: “It looked like a grand opportunity and he did it well.

“He’s been working well at home and we fancied him the first day, he just got a fright. He jumped a lot better there today and he stayed going well. He’s going to win his races.”

Kennedy ended the afternoon with a treble after steering Ted Walsh’s 10-1 shot Pictures Of Home to a head victory in the Tote Always SP Or Better @Fairyhouse Handicap Hurdle.

Henry de Bromhead and Rachael Blackmore combined to land the Lacey’s Plumbing & Heating Supplies Maiden Hurdle with 7-2 chance Chigorin.

O’Moore Park, the 4-6 favourite to make a winning comeback after 596 days off the track, was ultimately a little disappointing in finishing third.

De Bromhead’s assistant, Robbie Power, said of the winner’s display: “We’re delighted with that. He stepped forward nicely from Naas, we thought he wanted three miles and he’s proved us right.

“He’s still learning, the penny is only starting to drop with him now, so hopefully he can keep improving.

“He’s an out-and-out stayer and you won’t see the best of him until he goes chasing. He’s a fine, big, strong horse and he’ll be a nice one to look forward to next season.”

State Man made a pleasing return to action when retaining his title in the Unibet Morgiana Hurdle at Punchestown.

The chestnut took the contest last year before embarking on a brilliant season that saw him beaten only by Constitution Hill in five runs at Grade One level.

He was the 1-6 favourite for Willie Mullins and Paul Townend in a field of just four and after travelling well in mid-division, he accelerated when rounding the final bend and pulled clear to defeat stablemate Echoes In Rain by five lengths.

Gaelic Warrior strolled to an easy success on his debut over fences in the Conway Piling Beginners Chase at Punchestown.

The five-year-old was an incredibly useful hurdler, never finishing out of the top two in six starts in Britain and Ireland.

He was most recently seen winning the Grade One Irish Mirror Novice Hurdle by 10 lengths at Punchestown on his final start last season.

For trainer Willie Mullins and under jockey Paul Townend, the Rich Ricci-owned 4-11 favourite took a fence or two to perfect his jumping but victory was never in doubt and he was completely unchallenged when crossing the line 15 lengths ahead.

“It was a very good performance, way better than I expected. I thought he was a bit novicey at one or two but never looked like falling and he ran very fresh today,” Mullins said.

“We all know he stays and he might go a longer trip, but maybe after that performance I need to have a rethink about him. He’d have no problem going two and a half miles and two miles would be no problem to him either the way he ran there.

“We thought there would be a lot more pace in the race, but it seemed to evaporate and Paul was happy enough to make it.

“He was just a bit gassy today on his first run and maybe he will settle later on in the season.”

The success followed an earlier win on the card for Mullins, with Predators Gold taking the Chartered Physiotherapists Supporting Kilmacud Crokes GAA Maiden Hurdle by six lengths on his debut over obstacles.

“He was very impressive and there is a lot of improvement in him,” the Closutton trainer said of the 4-7 favourite.

“I thought it was a hell of a performance considering where he was at the third-last. He looks a really nice recruit.”

The opening contest was also won by a large margin as Gordon Elliott’s Mighty Bandit took the John Lynch Carpets 3-Y-O Maiden Hurdle by nine and a half lengths at 3-1.

“I’d say he’s a nice horse. We gave him two bits of work and he worked well and then he got light so we’ve done nothing with him since,” Elliott said.

“We didn’t really know what to expect, but Jack (Kennedy) said you’d have to be impressed with what you saw there. He was happy with him.

“He’d plenty of schooling done at home and he should strengthen up as the season goes on.

“We’ll look at Christmas now with him.”

Paul Townend is relishing the prospect of being reunited with Galopin Des Champs this weekend, when the Cheltenham Gold Cup hero bids for back-to-back victories in the John Durkan Memorial Punchestown Chase.

The Willie Mullins-trained seven-year-old kicked off a tremendous campaign with victory in the two-and-a-half-mile Grade One last season before going on to lift the Irish Gold Cup at Leopardstown and the blue riband at Prestbury Park in March.

He suffered a shock defeat at the hands of Martin Brassil’s Fastorslow on his final start of the campaign in the Punchestown Gold Cup – and the pair are set to renew rivalry in the feature event on day two of the new-look Winter Festival in County Kildare.

“I’m looking forward to Galopin Des Champs, every day you get to get up on a Gold Cup winner is a brilliant day and they’re the type of horses we wall want,” said Townend.

“He takes on Fastorslow, which won’t be an easy task. He beat us here at the Festival, so we’ll have to try to get our own back on him.”

Galopin Des Champs and Fastorslow are two of nine horses in contention for the John Durkan, with Mullins also responsible for Appreciate It, Asterion Forlonge, Blue Lord and Stattler.

Gordon Elliott’s pair of Conflated and Farouk D’alene, and French Dynamite from Mouse Morris’ yard, complete the potential field.

Mullins and Elliott are the only two trainers represented in Saturday’s main event, the Unibet Morgiana Hurdle.

State Man provided Mullins with a ninth win in the last 10 years when successful 12 months ago and is in the mix once again alongside stablemates Impaire Et Passe, Ashroe Diamond and Echoes In Rain.

Townend, who will presumably be on the stable’s first string, added: “It’s the most exciting time of year – none of them have been beaten yet (this season)!

“It’s a joy to go into Willie’s and look at the board and see the names. There’s a lot of big names from last year and a lot of new horses there – we’re trying to find the next superstar at this time of year.”

The Elliott trio of Fils D’oudairies, Irish Point and Pied Piper are the other Morgiana hopefuls.

He is likely to run at least two of the three, and said: “Pied Piper will go for the Morgiana. He’s hard to place but we’ll have a go. He’s in good form and he’s had his good run on the Flat the last day.

“I’ll probably run Fils D’oudairies as well. On ratings he has a lot to find, but it could be only a three- or four-runner race.”

Allaho made the perfect return to action when making every yard of the running in the Clonmel Oil Chase.

The nine-year-old had not been seen in action since slamming Clan Des Obeaux over three miles in the Punchestown Gold Cup back in 2022.

However, he has made his name as a chaser over intermediate trips, winning the extended two-and-a-half-mile Ryanair at Cheltenham twice in succession in devastating style.

A problem with his spleen meant he missed the whole of last season and he was having his first outing for 561 days, but Paul Townend was clearly not worried about fitness on the 1-4 favourite.

Out early for one of Willie Mullins’ stable stars, he was a little sticky at one or two fences on the way around but was never really in any danger.

With French Dynamite pulled out because of the ground, stablemate Janadil was the only real opposition and while he did close up on the run to the second last, two safe leaps ensured there was to be no drama and Allaho won by nine lengths.

Betfair and Paddy Power left the winner unchanged at 4-1 to win a third Ryanairm while Coral are a far more generous 7-1 from 8s.

“He was a bit rusty early on and uncompetitive for the first couple of fences, but I wasn’t going revving him up. He certainly didn’t feel any smaller and is a big horse to try to organise, so you just let him do his thing,” said Townend.

“He is massive and I was chatting to Rachael (Blackmore) not that long ago – as she won the Ryanair (in 2021) on him – and he just covers so much ground. You think you are just lobbing along but he puts other horses under so much pressure.

“He took plenty of blows today and it is hard work with everything finishing tired. He was entitled to get tired having been off the track for so long, but it is job done and there is plenty to work on.

“It is brilliant to get him back and his engine looks to be there. It is job done and Willie can make a plan after this.”

Allegorie De Vassy began her season with a win in the T.A. Morris Memorial Irish EBF Mares Chase, although she was made to work hard by stable companion Instit.

Sent off the 8-11 favourite, Willie Mullins’ Allegorie De Vassy made a mistake and the first and jumped the second very big before settling into a rhythm.

In the meantime Danny Mullins had Instit travelling well in front and and the pair were out to repeat their victory over their better-fancied stable companion at Fairyhouse in April.

Paul Townend began to get serious on the market leader two from home and was all out with a narrow advantage at the last, which she met on a long stride to seal the deal.

She ended up winning by two and a quarter lengths with Henry de Bromhead’s Maskada, winner of the Grand Annual, a little disappointing in fourth.

Townend said: “She ended off last year poorly and couldn’t have started better this year. There’s plenty to work on and I thought the two mares (Allegorie De Vassy and Instit) ran well, and the two will come on for it.

“On the whole, she’s a very good jumper, but for whatever reason she just gave the first a good clout and got careful for a fence or two. She was big after that for a couple but warmed up and when I needed her down the straight, she came through.

“She was beaten by a very good mare at Cheltenham (Impervious) and that probably left a mark for the rest of the season. She’s back now and we’re delighted with her.”

Gordon Elliott and Jack Kennedy tuned up for what they hope will be a fruitful two days at Down Royal with a double.

Farren Glory, thought good enough to make his hurdling debut in a Grade Two at Fairyhouse last April, put that experience to good use when making all the running in the I.N.H. Stallion Owners EBF Maiden Hurdle.

He beat fellow 13-8 joint-favourite Irish Panther by almost 10 lengths.

Kennedy said: “He jumped a bit big at a couple but I’m very happy with him overall. He was keen but I think he’ll settle in behind a couple of horses.

“He did plenty with me the whole way around but still picked up well and galloped to the line. He is a lovely horse and I was impressed with him.”

Stuzzikini (9-2) then cruised to success in the Clonmel Oil Service Station Handicap Hurdle, beating Kim Muir winner Angels Dawn by 31 lengths.

“To be honest, I was always happy. I got there plenty soon on him as he can pull up in front but there was nothing to bring me along any further,” said Kennedy.

“I thought he loved that ground and hopefully he can keep going the right way.”

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