Cheltenham: Pearl has lustre of majesty

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The Independent Online
AS THEY celebrate in the celestial drinking house, the huddle comprising the likes of Arkle and Golden Miller may be preparing to induct a new member into their executive bar.

The last Cheltenham Gold Cup of the millennium is greatly notable by the fact that it may throw up a quite extraordinary horse. It looks like we have a choice of three.

Those who have not heard of Florida Pearl will not be reading this piece. In the fast-gossiping sphere of Irish racing, his name has been passed round like old jumble virtually from the moment he could stand on four legs.

He has grown up to be a beast of substance both in size and achievement, and if the seven-year-old wins this afternoon he will be doing so for the third successive Festival. At the same time, he may bring to an end several bookmakers' involvement with the meeting. Istabraq's win for the travellers put several layers on debt row on Tuesday, and a potentially lethal injection of support for Florida Pearl now awaits.

The big horse has developed a habit of getting out the cigarettes once he hits the front and it could be that he is a great deal better than already shown.

"I'm not sure how much he can come on," Willie Mullins, his trainer, says. "He won his first bumper as a four-year-old and the Cheltenham bumper as a five-year-old so he obviously came to hand very early. So you wouldn't imagine there is an awful lot of improvement in him. But horses do surprise you. If he gets there as good as last year that will do me."

Certainly Florida Pearl did not look like damaged goods in his Cotswolds surroundings yesterday morning. His stablemate Alexander Banquet may have later capsized under expectation in the first race on the card, but as Florida picked grass in a sunshine state he appeared the epitome of relaxation.

Teeton Mill and Double Thriller were considered to be little more than jolly hockeysticks protagonists this time last year. The former luminaries of point-to-pointing have had to be taken treated more seriously since then.

Indeed, Teeton Mill can make himself majestic by deed here. Only Arkle has won a Hennessy Gold Cup, King George VI Chase and Gold Cup in the same season and the most celebrated of steeplechasers can be considered a rather reasonable benchmark in this sport.

If there is a blemish in Teeton Mill's record it comes in the shape of an appearance here in the Champion Hunters' Chase last April. The grey looked a bit of an old man that day as Double Thriller strode 12 lengths clear of him up the hill. That effort must be redressed.

Double Thriller himself is now with Paul Nicholls, an appointment which no longer seems to be a permanent bar to success at the Festival following the trainer's debut successes this year.

In another life, Nicholls was aboard the 1987 Gold Cup favourite, Playschool, who was pulled up, and he even managed to cap that disaster 12 months ago when the fancied See More Business was carried out by Cyborgo.

Nicholls was so displeased by that eventuality that he seemed prepared to tear out the entrails of Cyborgo's trainer, Martin Pipe. You could have roasted chestnuts in Nicholls's ears and, had he not been restrained, Chester Barnes might now be a fully-fledged licence holder.

"That's in the past, dead and buried," Nicholls says. "It got totally exaggerated and blown out of all proportion. What I felt that day is best kept to myself. When something like that happens you don't just say to yourself `well that was bad luck wasn't it?' It was just my temperament I suppose."

Double Thriller has not proved so bellicose this season, slaughtering sad animals like the keeper of an abattoir. His preparatory races have not been debilitating tests and that will help him in this the most demanding of contests.

It could be that Double Thriller is a very good horse indeed and it is his great misfortune to be running against an animal unusual by his uncharted ability. A bar stool can be made vacant in the heavens because this afternoon we are about to witness a racehorse of the rarest accomplishments.

It is scripted that the century should go out gloriously. It is scripted that FLORIDA PEARL (nap 3.15) should win the Cheltenham Gold Cup.