Racing: Florida fails to answer doubts

FLORIDA PEARL will start favourite for the Cheltenham Gold Cup next month after victory here in his homeland yesterday. The finish, however, is much harder to predict.

Ireland's pretender and Escartefigue fought out a finish hauntingly similar to their climax to the Royal & SunAlliance Chase at the Festival last season, and recurrent too was the question of whether Florida Pearl's stamina would stretch to the extra and harshest two and a half furlongs of the blue riband.

Bookmaker speculation in the immediate wake of yesterday's Hennessy Gold Cup is that he will. Florida Pearl is as short as 9-4 (with Coral) and certainly there is a warming keenness to his jumping, a fluency in that compelling stride. What is shrouded about the package though is whether this particular pearl is born of grit.

Escartefigue will try again and there was a buoyancy in his camp last night. So then there should be at the yards of Teeton Mill and See More Business, both of whom have beaten David Nicholson's horse by further this term. "We still have a race," the Duke said.

Florida Pearl is a captivating horse. He walked so slowly in the parade ring here yesterday, a long, white baguette of a blaze on his face, that you feared he might seize up. If the exterior was calm, however, it betrayed his workings. The gelding tested Richard Dunwoody's strength from flag fall.

"Today he was too keen in behind," Willie Mullins, the winning trainer, said. "We chose to take our time early on and just get his confidence back and, as the race progressed, you could see the horse was wanting to go and grabbing at the bit.

"Richard was trying to pop, but once he let him go he flew his fences and both rider and horse were happier."

The plan was to follow Escartefigue, and such was Dunwoody's proximity to the British challenger for much of the race that Richard Johnson may have been tempted to apply for a restriction order.

The shape changed at the entrance to the straight, when Florida Pearl, as he had done at Cheltenham, poached a considerable lead. Comparisons with Arkle seemed about to be invoked, but then the only similarity was with the Prestbury Park race. Escartefigue ate into the leader's lead on the run-in and, by the line, was two lengths in arrears, a fraction more than at March's Festival.

"Escartefigue put up a hell of a fight and over the extra two furlongs at Cheltenham he'll be coming into his own," Mullins added. "I don't think you pull away from Escartefigue too handily. He's a fair machine. Is there a horse that would run away from him? With Teeton Mill as well, we still have a horse race."

The trainer though does not anticipate a stamina deficiency being exposed in the Cotswolds. "We were thinking between running him in the four-mile chase and the bumper at Cheltenham the first year so I've no worries on that ground," he said.

Dunwoody returned to the twisting metal roses climbing the winners' post with his nose bloodied. Right up to the off he had received physiotherapy on a chronic neck injury.

"We had to gallop from the last because Escartefigue didn't stop," the rider reported. "He had to get the trip well and I'm totally positive about him getting the trip.

"He didn't over-exert himself from half-way up the run-in, but I felt if Escartefigue had come to me he'd have found a little bit more. I was worried he might have a hard race today and it might take the edge off him, but we certainly haven't bottomed him.

"He rates with the very best I've ridden. Across the board he's very strong: the jumping, the cruising speed, turn of foot and attitude."

That means that Escartefigue can be no yak either. His spotted and striped colours will again be chasing the similar silks of Florida Pearl up the Prestbury Park incline and only then will we know the effect of the full championship yardage. "He was staying on really well," Nicholson said. "People were talking about blinkers, but I don't think the horse deserves them. He's run his heart out.

"Florida Pearl is still the one we're frightened of. For me he's still the best horse. But you've got him as favourite for the Gold Cup and us at 10-1. I know which one I'd back."

Hennessy Cognac Gold Cup

3.40: 1. FLORIDA PEARL (R Dunwoody) 8-15 fav; 2. Escartefigue 100-30; 3. Addington Boy 33-1. 7 ran. 2, dist. (W Mullins). Tote: win pounds 1.30; places pounds 1.20, pounds 1.90. Reverse Forecast: pounds 2.00. CSF: pounds 2.41.