Racing: Imperial lords it over Florida

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THERE WAS sorrow at the Punchestown Festival yesterday. Sadness when Florida Pearl confirmed he was not the great champion many had painted him to be and even greater sadness when the hugely promising Joe Mac collapsed and died after his Grade One hurdle assignment.

Joe Mac was a very good horse. His swaggering triumph at Liverpool earlier this month established that. But there was no semblance of that Aintree iron yesterday when the gelding, who had been a doubt for the race after suffering a setback, dribbled home in sixth place. "He had travelled well enough up to a point, but I knew turning in he was beaten and was easy on him from there home," Conor O'Dwyer reported. "Just when I was pulling him up he began to wobble and when I got off he just collapsed."

They tried to revive poor Joe Mac, but it was useless.

The card should then have offered an immediately uplifting moment from Florida Pearl, for whom excuses had been forwarded following defeat in the Cheltenham Gold Cup. He faced a tiny but talented field in the Heineken Gold Cup, including an old foe from British quarters.

Escartefigue, a boarder at David Nicholson's yard, had given the Irish horse some heart-stopping moments in two of their previous three encounters, but here he laid down his most annoying challenge yet. The only disclaimer was that he was doing so without a jockey on his back.

Richard Johnson was removed from the relationship at the first fence when Escartefigue clipped the top of the obstacle, but that did not prevent the invader from playing a meaningful part in proceedings. He weaved his way around several of the fences, vaulted others far more fluently than he had done the opener, and was generally a mosquito flying around the helmets of the jockeys that did remain in their stirrups.

Imperial Call skipped on gaily ahead of this annoyance, but the game seemed to be up when Dorans Pride and Florida Pearl closed in at the contest's boiling point. Four fences out, however, Dorans Pride surrendered his chance with a sprawling mistake. Florida Pearl might as well have done the same himself, such was his impact for the rest of the encounter. Imperial Call came home alone.

The depressing realisation is that the Cheltenham Festival defeat may not have been a blip for Florida Pearl but rather a reliable yardstick to his true merit. He cannot now be the new Arkle because the old one did not flounder tamely like this.

"I have no excuse but it's no disgrace to be beaten trying to give 5lb to Imperial Call," Willie Mullins, Florida Pearl's trainer, said. "Maybe we've gone into a higher grade and he's not able for it because he just didn't pick up again."

It was not, however, a grey day for Imperial Call's connections and the victory was a tribute to the gelding's 23-year-old trainer, Raymond Hurley, who had resisted the temptation to run his charge in the Cheltenham Gold Cup, a race the 10-year-old had previously won.

"He was nearly right, but 95 per cent isn't good enough to go in a Gold Cup," Hurley said, "so I took him home and trained him for this race and I'm thrilled for the horse that he has redeemed himself today."

There was redemption also at Ascot, where John Dunlop's Celeric conjured memories of his victory in the Flat's Gold Cup two years ago. The seven- year-old weaved through cleverly to pass Shaya and Canon Can close home. "It is wonderful to see the horse back," Christopher Spence, his owner and brother-in-law of Celeric's late trainer, David Morley, said. "He had a difficult time last year.

"John Dunlop had to get used to him and he had to get used to Castle Stables. But, at the end of last year, he was running as well as ever, and John was saying how well he had been going. A million thanks to the staff at Castle Stables for getting him back to his best."

Dunlop's delight was tempered by the fact that another of his runners, Mawared, returned a damaged animal after being carried wide on the final turn by Spirit Of Love. "It was rather a mixed race because Mawared is quite significantly lame," he said. It was a bad injury but the horse survived. Joe Mac's connections would have settled for that.

n Peter Chapple-Hyam is worried that the ground at Newmarket will be too firm and the mile trip too short for his 1,000 Guineas contender Mother Of Pearl, 10-1 third favourite for the Classic with William Hill, and is considering withdrawing her. "I am tempted to wait for the French or Irish Guineas, or go for the Musidora at York," he said. Chapple-Hyam could rely instead on the 40-1 chance Circle Of Gold in Sunday's race.

n Barry Fenton was yesterday given a 10-day ban for his use of the whip when winning Saturday's Whitbread Gold Cup on Eulogy. He must also undergo a day's instruction at the British Racing School.