Racing: Hail the Pearly king of Ireland

Sue Montgomery says the `Best since Arkle' can confirm his credentials
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The Independent Online
THERE IS perhaps something in the water of the gently winding River Barrow, or the air that sweeps down from Mount Leinster and the Blackstairs escarpment. But whatever the source of the magic a new racing legend is poised to emerge from the rural fastnesses of Ireland's smallest county.

This afternoon Florida Pearl, the favourite for next month's Cheltenham Gold Cup, will make the journey north from the Mullins family stables in Co Carlow to Leopardstown racecourse on the fringe of suburban Dublin to contest the Hennessy Cognac Gold Cup. And though crunch time is probably an unfortunate expression to use in connection with a horse who was on the floor last time out, the three-mile race does mark the final opportunity for the magnificent-looking seven-year-old to prove he is as good at the sharp end of senior competition as every man-jack in his native land hopes he might be.

The Irish love a good horse, and love to love one. But their erstwhile darling Danoli has once again succumbed to injury and the collective gaze is now fixed five miles down the road to the other side of Bagenalstown. But this latest may turn out to be a different kind of hero worship. Danoli was styled the people's champion, the little fellow from the wrong side of the tracks who overturned all sorts of odds. He was gutsy and gallant and a winner, but had no pretensions to joining the immortals. Florida Pearl, though, immaculate of lineage and looks, the prince to his pauper, may just be the real thing. Oh, not as good as Arkle, nothing can be. But the words "the best since" are being whispered abroad.

And his trainer Willie Mullins' heart is just starting to beat that bit faster. This is a down-to-earth horseman who acknowledges that in the greater scheme of things there are more important issues than which equine can run and jump the fastest. But he also recognises the passions that the resolution of that question can invoke, not least in his own breast. "A horse like this one is what we are all striving for," he said. "And when you're lucky enough to get it, you enjoy it. And you hope, that although things in sport so often go wrong, that this time they won't."

In Irish eyes a good horse is a better one if properly supported, particularly at Cheltenham. Florida Pearl has already obliged twice as a banker at the holy of holies, in the bumper two years ago and in the novice staying chasers' championship, the Royal & Sun Alliance Chase last year, his sixth win from six starts.

Mullins, 42, is no stranger to the phenomenon, having been assistant to his father Paddy when Dawn Run loosened the roof of the Prestbury Park grandstand by winning the 1986 Gold Cup, and sent out the last three winners of the Festival bumper, Wither Or Which (whom he rode himself) and Alexander Banquet having sandwiched Florida Pearl. "When an Irish horse goes to Cheltenham with a serious chance," he said, "the trainer and the owner are only the minders. He actually belongs to the Irish people."

Florida Pearl, a white-faced bay standing a good 17 hands, combines the power and strength of one of Ireland's props with the nimblefootedness of a riverdancer. He impressed Mullins from day one. "He looked a fair machine," he said, "with tremendous potential, a big rangy horse with plenty of bone but light on his feet. We were delighted with the speed he showed in the bumper and he has the mental attitude I like, laid back and idle until something takes him on. He's done just about everything he's been asked. I'm sure he's good enough to go the whole way."

Florida Pearl has actually not yet been asked much. The one blot on his copybook, six weeks ago at the scene of today's showdown when he fell at the third-last fence as he was poised to challenge Dorans Pride, came in only his fourth steeplechase. The mistake at a ditch he had already negotiated five times perfectly in races and practice, seemed the result of slightly crossed wires between horse and Richard Dunwoody, in the saddle again today.

Whereas Dawn Run won her races despite, rather than because of, her jumping, the crossing of an obstacle has always been Florida Pearl's strong suit. "He is the most natural jumper I have ever come across," said Mullins. "And his recent schooling has been excellent. We've asked him to go a bit faster than previously and he's been sharp and clever as if he's learned by that mistake."

Florida Pearl's relatively light career so far has been a deliberate ploy. "I know he still has to properly prove himself in senior company. But every time you run there's the risk of injury and you really get only one chance of a horse this good in a lifetime," said Mullins. "So we've put all our eggs in the one Cheltenham basket."

The big horse - for whom the owner Archie O'Leary, a former Irish rugby international, has turned down offers of pounds 400,000 and more - faces a tantalising rematch this afternoon with Escartefigue, only a length and a half behind him at the Festival last year and runner-up since to Teeton Mill in the King George VI Chase.

The final cutting and stitching will not take place for another five and a half weeks but a decisive win today will mean that those who would bestow the mantle of greatness can at least, Augusta tailor-like, take note of Florida Pearl's measurements.