Racing: Has the banker got a hero's heart?

Cheltenham is less than a month away and the Irish have their cash ready to pile on this year's certainty.
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THERE are priests and prostitutes at the Cheltenham Festival, but the profession which most interests the visiting Irish is the banker, and that does not mean the plutocrats from the City.

The Irish banker is in fact a horse which appears at Cheltenham every 12 months. If it loses it is tremendous news for the bookmakers. It it wins it is tremendous news for just about everyone else, the thousands that back it and the service industries of Cotswolds restaurants, hotels and watering holes that meet their every need. The people who attend in addition to the priests probably do better business as well.

The burden of stimulating the Gloucestershire economy in under four weeks' time at National Hunt racing's fiesta will fall on a white-faced horse admirably built for carrying such a load. Florida Pearl looks as though he belongs in a circus, albeit not under a spangled acrobat but rather as part of the elephant troupe.

The six-year-old is a massive horse with a similar reputation and if his unbeaten record is arrested in the Royal SunAlliance Novices' Chase the faces in the stands will be longer than a gasman's mackintosh.

Florida Pearl is trained in the Danoli country of Co Carlow by Willie Mullins. Willie knows what it is like to win at the Festival as both jockey and trainer, and, most of all, he knows what it is like to be supervising a national treasure. He was assistant to his father Paddy during the incredible years of "The Mare". Dawn Run reached such celebrity that like "Himself" before her, she became recognised by the simplest of epithets.

Florida Pearl could not be more different from her in temperament. "Everyone that comes to the yard wants to see him and he's such a lovely laid-back horse that he smells and nuzzles them and everything," Mullins says. "Dawn Run was completely different. It was a job even to get in her box and even then you could do it only on her terms. Once you were in there she'd keep her eye on you all the time so you had to be careful."

Indeed, they still talk at Doninga of the day Dawn Run kicked a vet square in the chest as he was trying to administer an injection. Everyone who saw the medico travelling through an expansive parabola felt sure he would land dead until the loop ended in a pile of straw.

Florida Pearl has already proved he is good by handing out several thrashings. Now connections are hoping that, like Dawn Run, he will also show the great courage that only the finest possess. "You get plenty of horses who can show you speed and go past another, but not so many who can come back when another comes at them," Mullins says. "And then there's the very few who keep coming back two or three times against the very best horses. You need that heart that Dawn Run had. Defeat wasn't in her vocabulary and I'm just hoping he's going to be the same."

Willie Mullins was riding on Irish tracks while still under the tutelage of Cistercian monks at boarding school. His first contact with Cheltenham glory came when Hazy Dawn won the National Hunt Chase in 1982. Roly Daniels, the country singer and mare's owner, celebrated by warbling through Danny Boy in the unsaddling enclosure.

That day, a St Patrick's Day, is said to be the only occasion that Paddy Mullins, Hazy Dawn's trainer, has ever shown emotion at the racecourse. It was the first time one of his offspring had partnered a Festival winner.

Two years later, and the day after Dawn Run had won the Champion Hurdle, Willie Mullins won the National Hunt Chase again with Macks Friendly. It was an afternoon when the jockey wondered if he had overdone the partying the night before. As he swung into the straight on Macks Friendly he could not see the final fence and initially believed he had strayed on to the hurdles course. Only when the last obstacle appeared out of the shadow of the stands did the self-admonishment stop.

The six-times amateur champion is perhaps most famous for the two distinct orbits he used to take around the racecourse, either a Mercury or a Pluto but nothing in between. In winning the 1983 Foxhunters at Liverpool on Atha Cliath he piloted a course so tight that his boots were scoured with paint on his return. Yet in soft ground in particular, a favoured Mullins tactic was to go right round the outside in search of better going. Sometimes it worked, but other times they had to go out looking for him with torches.

However, by the time he had partnered Wither Or Which to success in the Festival bumper two years ago the infatuation was disappearing. "I was getting off horses still concentrating on the race and not able to communicate properly with the owners," Mullins says. "By the end I wasn't enjoying it. People told me that when I stopped riding I would miss it desperately. I haven't".

Now, aged 41, Mullins is happily established at Closutton, close to his father's yard. About 200 yards from the stables is a reminder of where most dreams end, the village graveyard.

The trainer tells you he is not a natural worrier, but it is not a message that nature itself forwards. The top of Mullins's head reveals that the good Lord has taken some of his hair away to save for later.

There have been stories emanating from Ireland that Mullins already considers Florida Pearl to be as good as Dawn Run and the only remaining question is whether he will transpire to be the equal of Arkle. This, however, was not the tone of our conversation.

Indeed, Willie Mullins is a worried man when he considers how fortunate he has been with the bay's health. Bacteria does not stay away for ever, and not all the stones are kicked off the gallops each morning.

In addition, there is the concern that a beast which showed as much flashing acceleration as Florida Pearl did in last year's Cheltenham bumper may not have the stamina for National Hunt's most prized assignment. "He stayed a trip in a point-to-point but obviously it's different against top-class horses," Mullins says. "We're just hoping he runs well this year and earns a Gold Cup entry next year.

"When people buy a horse, no matter what it costs, they always dream it's going to be a Festival horse. About 99 times out of a hundred they're disappointed so at least we're somewhere with this one.

"I know people are looking at him now, and I have to keep telling myself that he's just a horse." But Florida Pearl is much, much more. He's not just a horse. He's the banker.