Florida means business Irish chaser throws down the gauntlet to Cheltenham Gold Cup winner

A week after See More Business opened the defence of his Cheltenham Gold Cup crown with a stylish win at Wetherby, Florida Pearl, Ireland's best chaser, followed suit yesterday at Down Royal on the long road to the rematch at Prestbury Park next March. The Willie Mullins-trained seven-year-old jumped immaculately to beat Dorans Pride in the James Nicholson Wine Merchant Champion Chase, the feature event at Northern Ireland's first official festival of racing.

A week after See More Business opened the defence of his Cheltenham Gold Cup crown with a stylish win at Wetherby, Florida Pearl, Ireland's best chaser, followed suit yesterday at Down Royal on the long road to the rematch at Prestbury Park next March. The Willie Mullins-trained seven-year-old jumped immaculately to beat Dorans Pride in the James Nicholson Wine Merchant Champion Chase, the feature event at Northern Ireland's first official festival of racing.

Paul Carberry, riding the gelding for the first time in public, let him drop back and lob along as Ferbet Junior, one of last year's best novices, blazed his customary trail. To the young grey's credit, against a couple of high-class seasoned campaigners, he stayed in front until the fifth fence from home. Four out Dorans Pride and Florida Pearl ranged alongside and the trio were in the air together, but thereafter the contenders were reduced to a pair and then, as Florida Pearl took his old rival's measure for the fourth time in as many meetings at the penultimate obstacle, just one.

The giant white-faced bay popped over the last and crossed the line a comfortable three lengths clear. Afterwards Mullins owned that his main emotion was relief. He said: "I didn't realise how apprehensive I was until I got there up onto the stands and started watching. And when Ferbet Junior got 15 lengths out of the gate it didn't help. I was very pleased to see him over the last but things could not have gone better; the rider and horse got on fine and he jumped well. Though he did have a good blow after the race, he was as straight as he could be at this stage of the year. I didn't want to come here for a £100,000 race half-baked, get beaten and have a hard time. As it is I can now ease off a bit and let him relax."

Mullins has no illusions about the task facing Florida Pearl this year. Violet O'Leary's gelding, touted by some as the next Arkle, did not live up to expectations and could finish only third in the Gold Cup. He said: "See More Business is obviously better than ever and we've got 17 lengths to make up. And although we've probably improved, by the look of it, he has too."

The chasing stars drew a huge crowd to the County Down track from both north and south of the Irish border in what proved a hugely successful launch to the new venture. The festival is the brainchild of by the Northern Ireland Events Company, a government-backed body whose aim is to bring top sport to the six counties. And although Down Royal is steeped in and surrounded by political history - the course, lying in the Lagan Valley, received its first Royal subsidy from King Billy when he was on his way to the Battle Of The Boyne back in 1690 and the infamous Maze prison is visible from the grandstand - racing is the perfect medium for cross-community harmony.

It was entirely appropriate that Florida Pearl and Dorans Pride should take the first two places in Northern Ireland's richest race, for they were both bred in the oft-troubled province. But no one cares whether they are Protestant horses or Catholic horses.

Mike Todd, the Down Royal manager, said: "People here are bound by the love of a good horse and the idea is to start projecting Northern Ireland in a more positive manner ."

The news that Shaamit, the 1996 Derby winner, and the durable Posidonas will both stand at Ulster studs next year can do nothing but help.

Tony McCoy, one of Ulster 's other famous sons, was on duty in Britain and made a successful mid-afternoon dash from Chepstow to Wincanton to complete a double on two of Martin Pipe's fine young prospects. Having partnered Lady Cricket to a consummately easy victory in the Rising Star's Novices Chase at the Welsh track, he had to work only slightly harder to boot Wahiba Sands clear of Chai-Yo in the Tanglefoot Limited Handicap Hurdle.

But there was sadness at Sandown in a sport which sometimes demands a harrowing price. A day after the sport lost one of its major players, French Holly, in a schooling fall, the chaser Eulogy, mainstay of Richard Rowe's small yard, lost his life in a crash on the course where he had won the Whitbread Gold Cup six months ago.

At Doncaster the November Handicap, the last feature of the domestic Flat season, went in a finish of heads to the lightly-weighted mare Flossy, who relegated Carlys Quest to the runner-up spot for the second successive year with Lord Lamb, the favourite, a fast-finishing third. But Jack Berry's career as a trainer ended on a low note when his final runner Best Of All was brought down in the ladies' race, an accident which knocked out Beverley Kendall, her rider, for 15 minutes and put her in hospital.

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