Racing: Mullins pins hopes on golden Pearl

Cheltenham National Hunt Festival: Latest member of great Irish horse-training dynasty can finally put father in shade
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The jumping horse appears to be one of the grand designer's least thoughtful pieces of work, half a ton of muscle and power continually landing on fetlocks which look as though they could be snapped in a cot.

In one case at least, however, the physical architecture is perfect. Florida Pearl, the most famous chaser in all of Ireland, has a long face and he uses it to great effect on the rare occasions he is defeated.

In his 23 races over jumps, almost all of them at the very highest level, Willie Mullins' gelding has been out of the first three on just three occasions. The beatings have not been taken lightly.

"It might be a load of old bull, but, after a bad day or a defeat, he certainly never looks happy the next day," Mullins said yesterday. "He fell with Richard Dunwoody in Leopardstown one day and he was so depressed afterwards, we couldn't get anywhere near him. But when he wins he's full of the joys of life."

A good day for Florida Pearl invariably means a bad one for bookmakers. Even before his big face with a blaze in size and shape like a baguette was seen on the track he was a celebrity. Fevered word had it that this was the genuine new Arkle and also another supreme Irish beast, one coincidentally trained by Mullins' father, Paddy.

There have been many false dawns in the quest to find a successor for "Himself", but the nearest we have got was a real dawn, Dawn Run, who collected the Gold Cup in 1986. Willie recalls well that day 16 years ago when "the mare" emerged victorious. He cannot actually claim to have seen it, however. "I remember it vividly," he says. "I thought she was beaten after jumping the last and I turned away from the stands and I was already thinking about the next year."

Then came a tremor, and a strange hail. "All of a sudden, all I could hear was this great shouting," he says. "When I looked round, the air was full of hats. The whole place was just erupting. I knew that could only mean one result."

Florida Pearl could not be more different from the mare 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."

While this may be a kind comparison, Florida Pearl has generally failed in the match-up. But then he has found nostalgic antiquity the most potent enemy in his glittering career. Despite a record which offers two Festival successes and two places in the Gold Cup he will be greeted in the Cotswolds next week as something of an underachiever. If, however, he wins the Blue Riband it will be the defining moment of his career. It will mean immediate transfer to the pantheon of historical greats.

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

"Since the first day we bought him Florida Pearl has looked like a Gold Cup horse. He has size and scope. But we buy so many horses and so many of them never get near Cheltenham, never mind run in the Gold Cup, that we're delighted he's got that far and he's still competing with a winning chance.

"I would think this would be the last season he would be really competitive in the race. He's 11 next year and the statistics would be all against him. If it's good ground it will be best to have him up there making use of his jumping. With Adrian [Maguire] at Kempton [in Boxing Day's King George VI Chase] he really seemed to be enjoying leading going down to fences, so we'll be taking a much more positive attitude with him."

This is in keeping with William Peter Mullins, who is now the most potent force with a jumping licence across the Irish Sea. He was born for this station as his family are the Kennedys of Irish racing, stretching back six generations in the business of sending out racehorses to run as quickly as possible. Next week could be the official handing over of the Mullins baton, a meeting when the 45-year-old scion might pull away from his 83-year-old father from their joint six-winner mark at racing's Olympics. "Mind you he's got Tender Cove, who is well fancied in the Triumph Hurdle," Mullins jnr says. "It might be him pulling away from me."

Most notably among young Mullins' achievements in the Cotswolds are four successes in the jumps race which does not have any obstacles, the bumper, over two miles.

It is a contest which has taken his fascination ever since Wither Or Which was successful in 1996. Mullins did not have to give the winning jockey that March day any instructions, as trainer and rider were one and the same person. But that was the last big win in his career in the saddle as other obligations were crowding in.

"I was getting off horses still concentrating on the race and not able to communicate properly with the owners," he 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."

The thought of Mullins winning the bumper once again is an eventuality which will have sweating bookmakers bolting upright in their beds every night between now and next week. The grim news for them is that Closutton, in Co Carlow, once again houses the favourite for the race and he is an athlete who by no means pales in comparison with his predecessors. "We target horses for the race and, having been a bumper rider for 20 years myself, I'd have a fair idea of what it takes," Mullins says.

"I've only got one runner this year, Alexander Milenium, but we think an awful lot of him. He has always worked well. He's a lovely, big, rangy horse who also seems to have plenty of gears. He stayed very well to win on soft ground at Leopardstown at Christmas and certainly looks as good going to Cheltenham as Florida Pearl or Alexander Banquet did. I've had ones go to Cheltenham with a huge and strong support and this fellow has been equally as impressive as those."

These words are the wadding and gunpowder to be stuffed down the punting cannon of all Irishmen. If Alexander Milenium wins next Wednesday and Florida Pearl doubles up 24 hours later, bookmakers will be leaving Cheltenham dressed in nothing but barrels.