Irish banker a true pearl


The dream lives on. Florida Pearl, the latest Irish star to be stuck with the label of the new Arkle, defied stamina doubts to win yesterday's Royal & Sun Alliance Chase and keep his unbeaten record.

The bare facts that caused bookmakers to quote the charismatic six-year-old as low as 6 to 1 for next year's Gold Cup are that Florida Pearl beat Escartefigue by a length and a half but that doesn't tell of the performance that had thousands of throats expanding in adulation.

When it counted most Florida Pearl delivered with no excuses. It's as clear an indication of exceptional talent as any and while the comparisons may be futile, even the mighty Arkle himself might have been impressed.

Exceptional talent in this sport, however, is a corporate effort. Richard Dunwoody's post-race mood is usually a good indicator of a horse's talent and his broad grin suggests that the sky really is the limit for Florida Pearl who was winning at the festival for the second year running.

Dunwoody, who gave a wonderfully confident and patient display in the saddle, was keen, however, to spread the praise: "Willie Mullins has done a helluva job. He said after Leopardstown that Florida Pearl would be spot on for today and he really was. His stamina had been doubted and you don't know for sure until they do it but he has won really well," he said.

Mullins commented: "The plan is to come back for the Gold Cup. He looks like a staying chaser and today he's proved it. He will settle a lot better in his races and Richard said he would have got another mile. I left the tactics up to him."

Dunwoody's tactics were to hold Florida Pearl up. After jumping the first, the gelding was stone last. It can be risky to hold up behind a wall of horses and when Joliver and Ottawa crashed, Florida Pearl was near enough to their flailing limbs to case sharp intakes of breath in the packed stands.

Florida Pearl, nevertheless, made remorseless ground on the outside and turning down the hill, he joined Eton Gale (who was pulled up after the reins got entangled in his legs) for the lead. Those expecting a glorified victory parade were underestimating Escartefigue who put in a sustained challenge from then on.

Once over the last, Dunwoody had to drive Florida Pearl right out and correct a drift to the left but the race was in the bag. "He drifted because he's so intelligent he thought he had to go around again," grinned the jockey.

Maybe Florida Pearl was just looking into his Cheltenham future.

Mullins took a remarkable third Weatherbys Festival Bumper in a row when Alexander Banquet gave notice of some future Cheltenham appearances of his own in beating the hugely backed favourite Joe Mac.

The punters shouts presumed success for Joe Mac when he ranged alongside Ruby Walsh's mount on the turn-in but Joe Mac couldn't get past and persistently drifted left onto Alexander Banquet.

The result possibly saved the Cheltenham stewards from a difficult decision but couldn't take from young Walsh's first festival victory.

"I thought Joe Mac had me beat but my fellow out-battled him. He likes a real dogfight and this means everything to me. Now I've only three more to go to equal my father!" he grinned before indicating he may turn professional next summer.

Walsh certainly didn't look out of place against Joe Mac's rider Conor O'Dwyer who said: "He just didn't pick up like he can do and that's just down to greenness. Another run before this would have educated him."

Champion Hurdle hero Istabraq is on target to run in the Martell Hurdle at Aintree in two weeks time. Trainer Aidan O'Brien reported yesterday: "Istabraq got home this morning and there is not a bother on him. The Martell Hurdle at Aintree is still a definite possibility."

O'Brien added that runner-up Theatreworld will fly to the United States in April to contest the Sport of Kings Challenge at Keeneland.

Viking Flagship, twice a winner of the Queen Mother Champion Chase, was retired by owner Graham Roach and trainer David Nicholson after finishing fifth behind One Man in yesterday's featured event.

"The plan is to come back for the Gold Cup. He looks like a staying chaser and today he's proved it. He will settle a lot better in his races and Richard said he would have got another mile.