Racing: Easy win restores Pearl's brilliance

Ireland's finest returns to his best as female rider leads Fox Hunters home over the big fences

On the rare occasions he falls from the pedestal the great Irish chaser Florida Pearl seems to land on a trampoline. The 10-year-old bounced loftily from bad defeats at Leopardstown and Cheltenham here yesterday to record an extravagant success in the Martell Cup.

The winning margin was 11 lengths as he recorded his 13th victory over jumps, taking his career prize-money haul close to £730,000. It all made sense of the racecard assertion that he is arguably Ireland's greatest chaser of the last decade.

It is Florida Pearl's great misfortune that his three principal failures have been in the shining glare of the Cheltenham Gold Cup. For him, the hill at Prestbury Park seems to be a huge sand dune.

Yet on the flat tracks of Kempton and Aintree this season he has looked invincible. Such was the facility of victory yesterday, that his trainer, Willie Mullins, is already looking forward to yet another Festival next March and redemption.

"Beforehand I was afraid on my life that he'd put in another bad race like Cheltenham," Mullins said. "I'd love to get him in that sort of shape for the Cheltenham Gold Cup, but maybe his chance has gone now he's getting on in years.

"It's all about being right on the day in the Gold Cup and I don't think he has been for the last three years. Having him spot on is the big key.

"His whole training career has been geared towards getting to 11 or 12 and I deliberately haven't gone to every cock fight in the country. He hasn't run a huge amount for a 10-year-old so I'm hoping we might get a bit at the end next year.

"I might go to Punchestown now because there's money to be won. He'll be entered in the Gold Cup next year and I'll see how tight the gap is between Cheltenham and Aintree. The National is a race everybody would love to win and if we thought we had a chance we might go for it."

Twelve months on from the storms of last year's National, Aintree looked a different country yesterday. There was a shimmering heat haze and the Martell Cup horses looked magnificent under the rays. This, though, could never provide a full judgement of their wellbeing.

In a race for the exhausted from the Gold Cup, what lurked beneath would be the deciding factor. The highwaymen pairing of See More Business and Cyfor Malta – in black blinkers and visor respectively – took they eye, as did the swaggering Florida Pearl.

It was the outsider Noyan, however, who led for a long way, which was testament to the lamentable early pace. When Florida Pearl took over he quickly confirmed he was in his sunshine state. The vaulting was clean, his action at once smooth and powerful, as he sped away from his field.

The winner has spread around his favours like a serial philanderer and has now performed at the racecourse for at least eight jockeys. This was a debut and dream ride for the Irish champion, Barry Geraghty. "The way he jumped was unreal," the rider reported.

Florida Pearl will have no problem getting into next year's Grand National should connections wish to risk the gelding, but the run-up to Aintree 2002 was dominated yesterday by complaints from those who failed to make the cut.

When the initial weights were announced in February, a ballot was conducted for those horses on a mark of 130, establishing an order for entry into the National. In the interim, their figures have fluctuated and it now seems likely that higher-rated horses will now miss out at the expense of officially inferior counterparts. "Why do they have to decide so early?" Mark Pitman, the trainer of the first reserve, Browjoshy, said yesterday.

The original first reserve had been Gunner Welburn, but faced with the prospect of not getting a run, he was switched to the Fox Hunters' Chase over the huge spruce obstacles.

It was a switch that almost worked as Gunner Welburn beat home all but Torduff Express in the 30-strong field. The winner provided a notable success for Polly Gundry, the ladies' point-to-point champion of two years ago, who had just returned from competing over timber in the Maryland Cup in America. She became only the second woman, following Caroline Beasley on Eliogarty in this race 16 years ago, to triumph over the National fences.

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