Racing: Florida Pearl ready for the Festival roar

As Florida Pearl came steaming up the woodchip gallop at Closutton in Co Carlow yesterday he made a funny wheezing noise. "They call it high-blowing," Willie Mullins, his trainer said, exhaling smoke in the morning chill. "He does it because he's so relaxed, almost asleep. It stops when he goes faster."

If Florida Pearl goes fastest of all four weeks today he will cause a different noise altogether. If Ireland's moving monument wins the Cheltenham Gold Cup, the entire Cotswolds will rumble with the fanfare.

It is an eventuality which had all but been consigned to the dustbin until just a few weeks ago. Florida Pearl had not won for two years and the dark suspicion was that he had probably only just been able to blow out the 12 candles on his birthday cake. His story seemed to have run out of breath.

However, then came a restorative victory at Fairyhouse, smartly followed by a fourth win in the Hennessy at Leopardstown. Like Cleopatra, it seems, age cannot wither Florida Pearl.

It was certainly no greybeard which emerged into the soft sunlight in south-east Ireland yesterday, much as he has for the last nine years. Florida Pearl limbered up in the ring with Sybil the rottweiler for company and then headed across the road for duty.

But then it is not really duty for the white-blazed horse. That perhaps is the foremost reason for a racing record which includes 16 wins over jumps, nine of them Grade Ones, with two Cheltenham Festival victories and almost £900,000 in prizemoney. It says more about humankind than the animals they bet on that the races which are most discussed are the ones Florida Pearl has lost, in particular three Gold Cups.

The old man no longer needs to wind down the window and ask for directions to Prestbury Park. He is back next month for a seventh Festival and, while victory in the Blue Riband is improbable, the big horse has proved he is still a contender. "He has a great attitude, even at his age," Mullins added. "He went up the gallop there with his ears pricked just like he always does. He's never dug his toes in in his life."

It has been like this since Florida Pearl was delivered to Mullins as a relative puppy, in age if not size. He arrived also with a beastly reputation. "When we got him at four he was precocious," the trainer said. "He's a huge horse, 17 hands, and he was just about that size when we got him. He hasn't really improved that much. He's always been that good.

"From the first day we saw him he had everything. He had size, strength and bone and it was all in proportion, from the tips of his hoof up to his ears. You get big horses with small feet or legs and they can't take the strain. But he had everything, the whole way up. From top to bottom."

Bottom to top was also to become fundamental to the gelding's career, that is the climb up Cheltenham's final hill, an ascent which has proved fatal to Florida Pearl's Gold Cup aspirations. "I can't see why he shouldn't get the trip," Mullins said. "He won the SunAlliance Chase which is not much shorter and it's more about being right on the day. If Looks Like Trouble hadn't been in the race [in 2000] he would have won pulling a roller and nobody would have said he didn't stay.

"He certainly stayed on better at Leopardstown than he ever has in that race. Normally, he's hanging on at the winning post, but Richard [Johnson] confirmed that he galloped all the way to the line.

"You'd find it hard to see beyond Best Mate and Jair Du Cochet, but, after them, we've as good a chance as any. He certainly has a chance with all his experience and the fact that he has won round Cheltenham."

Mullins himself has been victorious at the Festival on seven occasions. Soon the longboats will be launched for another raid and in the camp the expectation is that the tally is to improve.

Closutton was a tarnished stable last season. First came the virus and then morphine-contaminated feed. Mullins felt a near Crippen figure as he repeatedly changed the feed without finding the right mix. This campaign has been different.

Of the 70 horses, 15 are expected to make it to racing's ultimate stamping ground. The Festival bumper, which Mullins has won four times, again looks most vulnerable. Among the brew are Major Vernon, Temple lusk and Knockabooly. "This," the trainer said, "is the strongest spring team we've ever had."

Willie Mullins is a quiet man who lets his horses generate the tumult. He will settle for just one victory in Gloucestershire next month, just one clamouring reception from his countrymen. If he had the choice, he would like the big horse to be the big noise.

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