Trained by: Willie Mullins
Owner: Archie and Violet O'Leary
Jockeys: Ruby Walsh, Paul Townend, Patrick Mullins
SIRE: Florida Son
Dam: Ice Pearl
Did you know: One of the most loved Irish chasers in recent decades, Florida Pearl was an immensely talented performer that won no less than nine Grade 1 races during the course of his career. He looked like a star from his very first start in a point-to-point and barring one below-form season, he was at the very top end of the sport for an eight-year period. Perhaps the most memorable win of his career came in the King George VI Chase at Kempton in 2001, with him getting the better of the subsequent three-time Cheltenham Gold Cup winner Best Mate by a very game ¾-length. However, in terms of sentimental value, it was hard to beat his fourth win in the Hennessy Gold Cup at Leopardstown at the age of 12 in 2004 and that proved to be the final start of his career as a minor injury led to his well-deserved retirement.
Having made a successful debut in a point-to-point at Lismore for Tom Costello in March 1996, Florida Pearl was bought for IR£50,000 by Archie and Violet O'Leary and sent to Willie Mullins. He made his debut at Leopardstown's Christmas meeting the following December and, having been sent off the well-backed favourite, he created a very good impression in winning easily. Mullins had won the Champion Bumper at the Cheltenham Festival for the first time with Wither Or Which the previous year and he had no hesitation and putting away Florida Pearl to be aimed at that race. Sent off at 6/1, Richard Dunwoody didn't have to get overly animated to record a comfortable five lengths success.
Straight Over Fences
Most presumed that Florida Pearl would take the typical route of novice hurdling the following season, but such was Mullins' belief in his ability to go to the top over fences, he made the bold decision to completely by-pass a novice hurdling campaign and sent him straight over fences. Having won his first two starts over fences in great style, he found himself back at the Cheltenham Festival as the 11/8 favourite for the Royal & SunAlliance Chase. Very much considered an Irish banker, he did not disappoint his supporters, recording a comfortable success that prompted great scenes of celebration in the winner's enclosure.
Taking On The Big Boys
While Florida Pearl met with defeat for the first time on his seasonal reappearance in Ericsson Chase at Leopardstown in December 1998, falling when yet to be asked for full effort at the third-last fence, he soon made up for that with an impressive win in the Hennessy Gold Cup at Leopardstown the following February. That win set him up for the Cheltenham Gold Cup and unsurprisingly, he was considered an Irish banker. Sent off at 5/2, he looked a big threat at the third-last fence, but faded to finish a well-beaten third behind See More Business on the punishing climb to the finish. Even more surprisingly, he was beaten again in the Heineken Gold Cup at the Punchestown Festival and he finished the campaign with questions to answer.
Back On The Road
Following a winning reappearance in the James Nicholson Wine Merchant Champion Chase at Down Royal, Florida Pearl met with a surprise defeat at the hands of Rince Ri in the Ericsson Chase at Leopardstown. He returned to winning ways on his next start, but only just, winning a Listed handicap chase at Leopardstown by a short-head from the subsequent Aintree Grand National winner Amberleigh House. That win set him up for the Hennessy Gold Cup and he duly retained his crown with an easy success over Dorans Pride. From there, it was back to Cheltenham for the Gold Cup and despite registering what was close to a career-best effort, he found Looks Like Trouble five lengths too good.
A Somewhat Frustrating Campaign
The 2000/1 campaign was a somewhat frustrating one for Florida Pearl, with him meeting with defeat in his first three starts of the season, despite running very well indeed in the John Durkan Memorial Punchestown Chase and the King George VI Chase at Kempton. He returned to winning ways when gaining his third consecutive win in the Hennessy Gold Cup at Leopardstown, but having missed Cheltenham, he rounded off his season with a disappointing defeat in the Powers Gold Label Tote Gold Cup at Fairyhouse.
A Day To Remember At Kempton
While the 2001/2 campaign saw Florida Pearl once again meet with defeat in the James Nicholson Wine Merchant Champion Chase at Down Royal, he quickly bounced back to winning ways in the John Durkan Memorial Punchestown Chase. That win set him up for a second bid for the King George VI Chase at Kempton and in perhaps one of the most memorable races of his career, he got the better of the subsequent three-time Cheltenham Gold Cup winner Best Mate by a very game ¾-length. Unfortunately, he failed in his bid to win his fourth consecutive Hennessy Gold Cup at Leopardstown on his next start and again disappointing in the Cheltenham Gold Cup the month after that. However, as had often been the case in the past, he quickly bounced back to winning ways, impressing in both the Martell Cup Chase at Aintree and the Heineken Gold Cup at the Punchestown Festival.
A Season To Forget And One Last Stand
Despite the previous campaign finishing on such a high, the 2002/3 season was unquestionably the worst of Florida Pearl's career. Five categorical defeats prompted many to suggest that at the age of 11, the great horse was reaching the end of his career. However, Mullins persevered and prepared his charge for one last campaign. Reappearing at the age of 12 in the Normans Grove Chase at Naas in January 2004, Florida Pearl showed plenty of his old spark to comfortably get the better of his old rival Rince Ri. That winning return set him up for his bid for a fourth Hennessy Gold Cup at Leopardstown three years on from his last win in the race and while sentiment was on his side, few believed he could pull off the feat. However, once again Florida Pearl would defy his critics. With him gamely disputing the lead with Harbour Pilot approaching the second-last fence, that rival unseated his rider, leaving Florida Pearl to hold off the late challenge of Le Coudray by three lengths. It was a remarkable success from the veteran and it was a fitting way for his career to end, as a minor ligament injury soon after put him out for the remainder of the season and he was retired the following summer.
Any nine-time Grade 1 winner deserves a place in racing history, but Florida Pearl holds a special place in the hearts of many Irish racing fans. A classy and versatile performer, his two victories at the Cheltenham Festival and in particular, his four wins in the Hennessy Gold Cup at Leopardstown, will live long in the memory and he can rightfully be heralded as one of the top Irish chasers of the last decade.