Racing: Pearl still champion in his own backyard

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It is almost four years since Florida Pearl won the Festival Bumper at Cheltenham on his second trip to a track, and he has carried the weight of Ireland's expectation on his broad bay shoulders ever since.

It is almost four years since Florida Pearl won the Festival Bumper at Cheltenham on his second trip to a track, and he has carried the weight of Ireland's expectation on his broad bay shoulders ever since.

Far from tiring of his burden, though, he travelled, jumped and quickened like a horse who still has a future to win the John Durkan Memorial Chase at Punchestown yesterday, while Sackville, voted the horse most likely to succeed him by many Irish punters, did not look up to the job as he finished only third.

Instead, it was left to Native Upmanship to go stride-for-stride with Florida Pearl on the run-in, just as he had in the same race 12 months ago. Last season, Native Upmanship got the better of the battle by a short-head, and yesterday he looked to have come with a winning run at the last fence. After a flawless display, though, it was the grit of a champion which got Florida Pearl home.

And a champion he certainly is, at Leopardstown at any rate, where he has won seven times in nine outings, including the last three renewals of the Hennessy Gold Cup, Ireland's premier chase.

What he has yet to achieve, despite two brave attempts, is the same status in Britain, with victory over the three-and-a-quarter-mile trip of the Cheltenham Gold Cup.

For all his excellence over two-and-a-half miles yesterday, the belief remains that the Gold Cup will always be a couple of furlongs too far, and William Hill, who quoted him at 33-1 for the chasing championship before yesterday's race, still offer 25-1 this morning.

Three miles round Kempton is another matter, however, and Willie Mullins, Florida Pearl's trainer, said afterwards that the King George VI Chase at Kempton Park on Boxing Day is likely to be his next assignment, rather than the Ericsson Chase at Leopardstown on 29 December.

"Florida Pearl has eaten up and his blood picture was fine although he had worked badly on Tuesday," Mullins said. "He's popped over three fences this morning and his jumping here was very good. Paul [Carberry] said that he got there a bit soon, but I was delighted with the way the horse battled and I would be keen now for another crack at the King George after his good run when he was second there last season."

Florida Pearl is an 8-1 chance for Kempton with the Irish bookmaker, Paddy Power, but the Tote were less impressed and will lay you 12-1 this morning.

Native Upmanship also improved his position in the Festival ante-post betting, although his target is expected to be the Queen Mother Champion Chase, for which he is 8-1 (from 14-1) with William Hill. Interestingly, Mike Bellamy, Hill's odds compiler, suggested that Florida Pearl would be "the same sort of price as Native Upmanship for the Queen Mother if he were confirmed a likely runner."

Given the ease with which Florida Pearl travels through his races, it is far from impossible that he might line up on the Wednesday of the Festival, just as he did when successful in both the Champion Bumper and the 1998 Royal & SunAlliance Chase.

Sackville was the horse who seemed to do little for his Festival prospects yesterday, but Hills eased him only a point in the Gold Cup betting, from 6-1 to 7-1, while the Irish layer Paddy Power left him unchanged at the same price and Ladbrokes go 8-1 (from 6-1). The immediate excuses offered for his performance were the trip and the fact that he was forced to make the running, but he will need to do rather better in his next race if he is to arrive at Cheltenham as a realistic Gold Cup horse.

"He wasn't doing a tap in front," David Casey, Sackville's jockey, said. "Basically we were done for pace and he would be much better back over three miles in the Ericsson Chase." Frances Crowley, his trainer, confirmed that the Leopardstown race will be Sackville's next target. "He won't be running again over this trip of two and a half miles which is well short of his best," she said.

The most impressive winner elsewhere on the Punchestown card yesterday was Ballyhampshire Boy, who took the novice hurdle on a tight rein and earned a quote of 11-1 for the Festival's Supreme Novice Hurdle in the process.

PUNCHESTOWN (John Durkan Memorial Chase): 1. FLORIDA PEARL (P Carberry) 5-1; 2. Native Upmanship 7-2; 3. Sackville 6-4 fav. won by short-head and 6 lengths. (W P Mullins, Carlow). 4 ran. Also: 9-4 Rince Ri (4th). Tote: win £4.30. Reverse Forecast: £16.30. CSF: £20.36.