Racing: Festival roar awaits the `new Arkle'

Willie Mullins, the Irish trainer, has a strong hand for the Cheltenham Festival and Gold Cup hope Florida Pearl is his ace.
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BEFORE THE 1977 Derby, they stuffed The Minstrel's ears with cotton wool to prevent him from getting frightened by the Epsom cacophony. It worked. He won.

Another Irish horse, Florida Pearl, may need to be fitted with balaclava and hard hat if he is not to disappear over the horizon at the Cheltenham Festival in two weeks' time. Epsom was a whisper compared to the noise which will be generated at the foot of Cleeve Hill when the sainted Florida Pearl runs in the Gold Cup.

It does not take much to ignite the Irish dream for the Festival, the thought that they have an animal with which to beat their historical antagonists. Many have proved to be false dawns, but perhaps the most memorable was the real dawn, Dawn Run, who collected the Blue Riband in 1986. The chain of coincidence established is that she was trained Paddy Mullins, whose son Willie will now massage Florida Pearl before he leaps from his corner.

Willie recalls well that day 13 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.''

It is now not one but two results which are required when the Irish come swarming into the Cotswolds. Florida Pearl will be weighed down greatly by money and expectation enough as it is, but if Istabraq also triumphs in the Champion Hurdle for Aidan O'Brien on the opening day the satchels will be groaning with paper content. If both win there will not be a dry glass in the house.

"When you're training a horse with this sort of ability it's a lot easier, and I'm sure Aidan will agree with that," Mullins says. "Worrying won't make him them faster so all we can do is get them fit on the day and if everything goes right it will take a good horse to beat either one. It would be a bigger burden if I didn't have a horse like this one.''

The big horse carries the red and white colours of Mrs Violet O'Leary, the wife of the former Irish rugby international, Archie O'Leary. Archie, who has twice skippered a boat in the Irish Admiral's Cup team, has turned down offers of over pounds 300,000 for his breathing property. He acknowledges this is the chance. O'Leary has been through the wonder of top class sport but he nevertheless admits he dreams about Florida Pearl. He is not the only one.

Willie Mullins, though, knows all too well where dreams can terminate. He trains on a farm in Closutton, about four miles from his father at Doninga, in the Leighlinbridge area of Co Carlow. Just up the road is a graveyard. At 42, Mullins Jnr is now in the vanguard of Ireland's trainers and this may well be the most fruitful Festival of a career that has been punctuated by glorious victories both in and out of the saddle.

Alexander Prize will contest a bumper in which his trainer has a surreal tradition. He has scooped the last three. Alexander Banquet (Royal & SunAlliance Novices' Hurdle) and Wither Or Which (Supreme Novices') will now attempt to continue their unbeaten Cheltenham records, but it is the horse they sandwiched as the Festival bumper winner who earns the most attention.

Florida Pearl has a big head with a big stripe and, if he was vain, the gelding might inquire if his powerful bottom looked big in his hide. When he enters the arena it is hard to believe that this can be a nimble jumping horse. Florida Pearl's proportions suggest he has come snorting from the Camargue. But performance has told us that this animal is both bull and matador. He uses his physique so well that Richard Dunwoody, the horse's regular partner, knows he is always in for a white knuckle ride as he tries to restrain his confederate.

Florida Pearl was purchased from the great horse trader Tom Costello for pounds 50,000 after just one point-to-point run. He ran in just two bumpers, the second his Cheltenham win, before being sent straight over fences. On his third start over the larger obstacles he collected last year's Royal & SunAlliance Novices' Chase after a duel with David Nicholson's Escartefigue.

At Christmas, though, came the extraordinary sight of this huge animal coming to grief when he fell in the Ericsson Chase at Leopardstown. It was rarther like watching a lighthouse crash into the ocean. Florida Pearl has subsequently recovered his reputation with a further defeat of Escartefigue back at the same course, when he seemed to be rather pleased with himself on the run-in and deigned the opportunity to run right away from his field.

Some believe this characteristic means Florida Pearl will be found out when he has to drag himself up and down the dramatic contours of the Gold Cup circuit. Others consider that the seven-year-old has yet to dip seriously into his bank of reserves and is just waiting for a campfire scrap to show his mettle. This is the beauty and excitement of Florida Pearl. We are not yet sure how good he is. Certainly worse horses have been called the new Arkle.

This high beast of promise will be placed on the anvil in 15 days' time and asked to conquer the best, conquer the intricacies of Prestbury Park and conquer the great wailing wall of noise as he turns into that most demanding of straights. For a horse, the Festival run-in is the equivalent of being sent into shelling on no-man's-land.

"He has a huge amount of ability and it might be we'll finally found out about his courage in the Gold Cup," Mullins says. "He showed a lot of courage last year when he hit the front a long way out and then Escartefigue came back at him. To me, he was always doing enough to stay in front.

``Just to come up that hill into the Festival roar is hard enough. It's the most daunting thing a horse and jockey can do.''