Racing: Pearl's progress is a unifying force

Sue Montgomery at the evocative birthplace of Florida Pearl
Click to follow
The Independent Online
MO MOWLAM could do worse than pay a visit to Cheltenham this week. Florida Pearl, the favourite for the Gold Cup, is an Irish horse, to be sure, but one from a multi-denominational background. He is trained in Co Carlow, is owned by a Corkman, his jockey is from Co Down and he was born and bred in Co Antrim. And if he is crowned king of the chasers on Thursday, all Ireland will unite unreservedly to acclaim him.

The point is that Carlow and Cork are in the South, Down and Antrim in the North. Political divides in Ireland may be one thing, sporting geography and passions quite another and - seemingly - as illogical. Northern Ireland and the Republic field separate football teams, for instance, yet green and orange will be as one in baying for English, Scots or French blood at Lansdowne Road. When Eddie Irvine, the boy from Conlig, stood atop the podium a week ago in Melbourne, one of his most devoted supporters proved to be a wee lad from Co Kerry.

But here we're talking a different sort of horsepower. And if only the Northern Irish trade and industry department knew it, the six counties' contribution to jump racing is something to rival the output of the Bushmills Distillery in terms of marketability. The tiny province has provided not only the sport's two top human exponents, Richard Dunwoody and Tony McCoy, but also a brace of Gold Cup runners this year as Dorans Pride, the star of the County Down, is due to line up alongside Florida Pearl.

This actually represents a fairly outrageous example of disproportional representation. The thoroughbred broodmare population of Northern Ireland would be only around 1,100-strong, compared with some 13,000 equine matrons south of the border and maybe 10,000 in Britain.

The one with so many hopes resting on her this week is a gentle, kindly 15-year-old named Ice Pearl who lives, alongside her most famous son's sire, Florida Son, at the Mackean family's Sweet Wall Stud near Antrim town on the shore of Lough Neagh.

A Gold Cup triumph for Florida Pearl - already winner of the Festival Bumper and Royal & SunAlliance Chase at Cheltenham in successive years - would, of course, be financially beneficial for Pat Mackean and her daughter Georgia Stubington, who run the stud on a commercial basis. But as the big day approaches it is clear that the job is done for love, not money.

The emotional, even proprietorial, bond between horse and breeder flourishes long after the beast is sold and the cheque banked and spent, and no wonder, really. On an April evening nearly seven years ago Mackean knelt in the straw and sweated and strained as she helped Ice Pearl bring her big white- faced baby into the world. "When he ran at Cheltenham last year I grabbed a place by the unsaddling enclosure so I could savour the atmosphere if he won," she said. "I watched the race on the big screen and when he landed clear over the last fence I just burst into tears. Yes, it matters to the business whether he wins or loses on Thursday. But the most important thing is that he comes back in one piece."

Sweet Wall, part of the elegant 700-acre Loughanmore estate and no leprechaun- infested bog, was shaped by the development of Northern Ireland itself. In 1920, the same year as the province was created when six of the nine Ulster counties seceded from the newly independent Irish Free State to remain part of the United Kingdom, Mackean's parents-in-law, Charles and Rebecca, acquired Loughanmore and started breeding racehorses with notable success. The stud was named after their filly, which ran second in the 1928 Irish 1,000 Guineas.

When war broke out Charles Mackean considered there were more important issues to be addressed than the rearing of racehorses and sent his stock to the neutral South, where they remained and were eventually dispersed. "I started again in the Sixties with Connemara ponies," Mackean said, "and then moved up to half-breds. And then, when my husband died, I was left with this lovely yard, so I decided to start a National Hunt operation."

She was spot-on target with her first stallion. Florida Son, a four-time winning handicapper, but a shrewdly spotted son of Busted, a horse subsequently revealed as most influential in the jumping sphere, was secured at the 1984 Newmarket Autumn Sales for 12,000 guineas. "We had gone to the sales with a long list and whittled it down to just him", she said. "And we got him with the final bid we could afford. The underbidder was Luca Cumani, who had wanted him for an amateur rider in Italy."

Making a jump stallion is a long job at the best of times. Florida Son, now 20, attracted just four thoroughbred mares in his first season. Patronage picked up when a second-crop product, Florida Sky, achieved some fame as a point-to-pointer, but did not really rocket until the coming of Florida Pearl. The turbulent part of Ulster's recent history is perhaps partly to blame. "Some breeders from the South did seem to be terrified of coming to the North because of the troubles," said Mackean, "but we also had one chap from Galway who said he couldn't cope with our fast five-lane motorways."

The fee for Florida Son is at present pounds 600 a go. "It may go up on Thursday afternoon," said Mackean, twinkling. "But we've got 58 booked at that price, which is almost unheard of. Normally the first you know of a mare is when she's driven into the yard in season."

Ice Pearl, one of 16 broodmares at Sweet Wall, was bought specifically as a mate for Florida Son. She has produced three fillies by him; fingers are crossed for a colt this time. The legendary talent-spotter Tom Costello, who bought Florida Pearl as a foal, is keeping close tabs on the state of his dam's latest pregnancy.

Two of the mare's daughters are still at Sweet Wall, a big, bay white- faced two-year-old and a blonde-maned chestnut yearling, at present up to her oxters in mud with a gang of her contemporaries by the banks of the clear brown Rathmore Burn. Depending on the sex of Ice Pearl's foal due in June, one will go to market later in the year.

Mackean, in her 70th year, and Stubington, who has evented for Ireland, are horse people and thus by definition stoic in the face of setbacks. "To have produced one even good enough to be running in the Gold Cup is something to be proud of. And perhaps he has the winning of the race, but maybe not this year. I think maybe he's a little bit too inexperienced. And that grey horse's jumping is unflawed." Perhaps playing devil's advocate is the only way to cope with what will be the ultimate dream or crushing disappointment.