Florida Pearl, about whom the phrase "the best since Arkle" is now being spoken aloud, and his perceived main rival, Teeton Mill, the home side's great white hope, are worthy market leaders for the 72nd running of the Gold Cup. They have trodden very different roads, though, to the forefront of the betting. Florida Pearl, the heir apparent, has been in situ since he won last year's Royal & SunAlliance Chase. Teeton Mill, at present under SAS guard at his Herefordshire stable, has had to work his way up through the ranks.
Either could prove himself a true champion in what looks an above-average renewal of the battle for chasing's crown. But both are short enough in price for horses over whom the odd question mark is hovering. Florida Pearl is still relatively inexperienced and the tremendous mid-race pace Teeton Mill possesses may leave him vulnerable at the end of three and a quarter miles round Cheltenham.
Of the pair, preference is for the Venetia Williams-trained grey, whose jumping under Norman Williamson is a caution to see. But the value, at around 8-1, may be the horse who has already twice finished third in the race, Dorans Pride. Richard Dunwoody has deserted the chestnut 10-year- old, trained by Michael Hourigan at Patrickswell, Co Limerick, in favour of Florida Pearl, but the dashing, gifted Paul Carberry is a more than adequate replacement.
In his first tilt at the Gold Cup, Dorans Pride, winner of the Stayers' Hurdle two years previously, ran a blinder in his novice season over fences. Last year, on ground much faster than ideal, he was less than two lengths behind the shock winner Cool Dawn, staying on with a vengeance.
This year he should have his ideal underfoot conditions and comes to the race as fresh as paint, not having run since he left Florida Pearl on the ground behind him at Leopardstown in December. And horses do hit the target after more than one shot: Red Rower (1945) and Mandarin (1962) won at their third attempts, and it took The Dikler (1973) and The Fellow (1994) four goes.
Like Florida Pearl, Istabraq is on a Festival hat-trick. The seven-year- old's stunning Champion Hurdle victory last year seemed to mark him as capable of winning another title and he has done nothing to disabuse his supporters of that notion since. This season's campaign has gone like clockwork for J P McManus's gelding, one of only a few jump performers still resident at Ballydoyle and considered by the trainer Aidan O'Brien to have improved with another year. Three saunters against inferior opposition warmed the son of Sadler's Wells up nicely for his clash with Britain's perceived best, French Holly, at Leopardstown in January, when he cantered all over his rival to score by an insultingly easy length. He can become the first dual winner since See You Then notched the middle leg of his hat-trick 13 years ago.
Twelve months ago, French Holly emulated Istabraq by winning the Royal & SunAlliance Hurdle. He was in a class of his own that day, winning by 15 lengths, but is likely to have to follow his rival's hoofprints in a more literal sense on Tuesday.
Istabraq's presence could result in a smaller than average field and of the long-shots his stablemate Theatreworld, runner-up for the past two years, and another thorough stayer, Zafarabad, make most appeal.
Sadly, with the death of One Man at Aintree, there will be no dual winner of the Queen Mother Champion Chase. Of all the races at the meeting, the two-mile Wednesday showpiece is the one in which favourites have the best recent record, with seven victorious in the past 17 years. The market leader is the classy, but glass-legged Call Equiname, the winner of the rescheduled Victor Chandler Chase at Kempton.
Preference is for the Henrietta Knight-trained Edredon Bleu, on whom Tony McCoy gave a minimum-trip masterclass at Sandown last month and who demonstrated his exciting front-running style to excellent effect in the meeting's Grand Annual Chase last year.
The seven-year-old son of Grand Tresor is one of a host of French-breds expected to figure prominently during the week. The banker among them may be another of the McManus-O'Brien team, the Phantom Breeze five-year- old Le Coud-ray, in the Stayers' Hurdle on Thursday. Martin Pipe, who has won this most entertaining of contests twice in the past five years, has whittled his eight-strong entry down to a formidable one, Deano's Beeno, whose all-the-way tactics will make the test a severe one.
There would be no more popular winner than the little mare Lady Rebecca, but in this case a good big 'un - Le Coudray - may prove the answer.
STAN HEY, SECTION ONE, PAGE 27Reuse content