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'That Gold Cup hill may have been beyond him, but few - if any - horses gave more sterling service in such elevated company'.

Byline: Alistair Down

LONGEVITY begets affection. Back in the 1970s, the British middle classes lay trembling in their beds every night waiting for Tony Benn and his socialist hordes to come and nick their money before slitting their throats.

Nowadays Benn tours the provincial theatres of England with his one-man show, playing to packed houses formed by the very same folk who used to quake in fear of his every utterance.

They have come to love the old warrior because he has remained true to himself and stayed a very long course.

In a similar way, jumps fans on this side of the water seemed, to my mind, to take an agonisingly long time before taking Florida Pearl to their hearts. Indeed, not until his remarkable season as a ten-year-old in 2001/02, when his four wins included a King George defeat of Best Mate, the Martell Cup at Aintree and the Heineken Gold Cup at Punchestown, did the scales fall from British eyes and proper respect start to be accorded to him.

This partly derived from his failure to win a Cheltenham Gold Cup, as if that in some way disqualifies Florida Pearl from his place among the greats - a nonsensical stance too long maintained and once scornfully dismissed by the sages of Timeform as being 'like finding fault with Chekhov because he isn't Shakespeare'.

In Ireland it has always been different, to a degree because of an almost instinctive appreciation of the class horse but also because of the evangelical zeal with which they support any horse who may be able to fulfil the undying Irish dream of giving the British what they call 'a proper tumping'.

And, of course, on his first two visits to the Festival he did just that, justifying a colossal reputation in the bumper and, eschewing a hurdles career, returning a year later to win the SunAlliance Chase.

In all he ran six times at the meeting - denied a probable seventh by foot and mouth - and a horse must be blessed with some constitution, both physical and mental, to endure at the highest level jumping can offer for that length of time.

As is only fitting, his most trenchant supporters have been his owners Archie and Violet O'Leary. Archie, a great bear of a man still carrying the physique of his rugby-playing younger days, is a gentle soul but you criticised Florida Pearl at your peril.

He once memorably suggested that those British hacks who had the nerve to suggest his horse was a bit soft to stick to something they knew more about 'such as gardening'.

And to be at Leopardstown last February was to witness a one-horse celebration of all the things about the great staying chasers that you are happy to let get under the skin.

Here, aged 12, following on from his sole winnerless season in eight campaigns, was Florida Pearl attempting a ninth Grade 1 chase and a fourth Hennessy.

The reception that day lacked the sheer exuberant excitement that had greeted Best Mate after the Ericsson on the same course six weeks earlier, but the sheer affection flooded from the crowd.

We had all been there before, but a masterpiece is a masterpiece however often you view it. I've seen Casablanca a dozen times but it is still magic whenever they play it again.

That Gold Cup hill may have been beyond him, but it never broke him. Not once in that long career did he ever run a race where you even began to wonder whether his heart was still in it. From raw recruit to the age of 12, few - if any - horses gave more sterling service in such elevated company.

So where does he figure in the scheme of things? When he won the King George he was only the fourth Irish horse to do so, joining Cottage Rake, Arkle and Captain Christy.

Timeform, who never let heart rule head, insist he has to be among the top six Irish chasers of the 'last 30 years or so and, in terms of showing top-class form over a sustained period, he is almost out on his own'.

To my friend Willie Mullins and his team, thanks are due for a supreme shepherding of a very special horse. That we won't see him again is no sadness. It now transpires he went out in that blaze of Hennessy glory to a richly deserved cacophony of shouts and whoops from his devoted home support. Jumping will, of course, see the likes of him again, though their number will not be legion.

From my perspective, knocking on 50, I have seen a handful who matched his quality and durability, but don't expect to lay my eyes on more than a couple in his league this side of the Reaper carrying out his raid.It is ironic that Florida Pearl, who just couldn't manage that Gold Cup hill, proved himself one of the most thorough stayers of all in terms of a career that wonderfully redefined the old phrase 'long and honourable'.
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Copyright 2004 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:Sports
Publication:The Racing Post (London, England)
Date:Jul 30, 2004
Previous Article:Florida Pearl is retired after seven years at the top.
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