Willie Mullins remains hopeful that stable star Florida Pearl can win his third race at the Cheltenham Festival next month as the veteran lines up at the meeting for the seventh time.
The remarkable gelding gained a history-making fourth success in the Hennessy Gold Cup at Leopardstown on his latest appearance and appeared to be as strong as ever at the age of 12.
Immediately afterwards Mullins nominated the Tote Cheltenham Gold Cup as “the only possible race” for Florida Pearl, the gelding having been second in the contest in 2000 and third in 1999 after winning the Royal & SunAlliance Chase in 1998 and the Champion Bumper the year before.
And the Bagenalstown trainer confirmed today that Florida Pearl is set to spearhead a strong-looking squad of at least a dozen he hopes to prepare for the Festival.
“Our plan from the beginning was always not to over-race him so that he might still be around now, like he is,” said Mullins.
“Rather than burn him out when he was six, seven or eight and take him to every cock-fight, we were selective and went only for the very best races.
“Whether it is by luck or by judgement that he is still around now, I couldn’t be sure.
“He has been quite a lucky horse throughout his career and that has played a part.
“But every horse has only so many miles on the clock and if you want to run them 10 or 12 times a year then they are not going to last.
“From the very first day he has always been a very sound horse. He had size and strength and the best thing was it was all in proportion.
“Sometimes you can get a big, strong horse who only has small feet and they can’t take the strain.
“The other thing is that he has a very forward outlook. I have never, ever seen him dig a toe in.”
Doubts over the stamina of Florida Pearl for the extended three and a quarter miles of the Gold Cup have arisen before, but Mullins remains undaunted.
“Everyone forgets that he has won the SunAlliance over three and one, and what’s a furlong?” said Mullins.
“Take Looks Like Trouble out of the 2000 Gold Cup and he would have been an impressive winner.
“When you take on Grade One horses in a Grade One race you can’t ever be confident, but when he won the Hennessy last time he seemed to be galloping on as well as ever at the finish and Richard (Johnson) agreed with me.
“If he gets there 100 per cent on the day, then I’ll be happy.”
Mullins has some 20 horses earmarked as possibles for Cheltenham, but he is realistic enough to know that some will fall by the wayside with injury or alternative plans over the next four weeks.
His largest team is likely to be in the Weatherby's Champion Bumper, the race he has won four times, for which he has a squad of five or six possibles, all of which have already won in Ireland.
Major Vernon, Templelusk and Knockabooly are already in the frame as well as the fillies Mrs Walenksy and Masriyna’s Article.
But the one Mullins singled out for particular mention was Gayle Abated, the winner of a Fairyhouse bumper on his only start to date.
“He hadn’t been showing us an awful lot at home before he won and I like that in a horse, when they come out and surprise you,” he said.
Davenport Milenium will contest the Smurfit Champion Hurdle in the hope that fast ground and some spring sunshine will bring about a return to form, while Mossy Green and Rule Supreme are both being trained for the Royal & SunAlliance Chase.
Potential Letheby & Christopher Supreme Novices’ Hurdle candidates include Arch Stanton and Euro Leader, but Royal Alphabet – off the course since September – is “touch and go”.
“He has had injury problems and I am not sure if he will be ready,” said Mullins, who admitted he is also considering the race for Monday’s impressive Navan scorer Sadlers Wings.
The classy flat performer was set to take his chance in the Royal & SunAlliance Hurdle, but the speed he showed over two miles at Navan has led him to reconsider options.
“He stayed well on the Flat, but two miles certainly didn’t seem to be a problem for him the other day,” Mullins commented.
Other names in the frame are Castle Weir (Christie’s Foxhunter), Boneyarrow (National Hunt Chase) and JCB Triumph Hurdle possibles which include Diego Garcia, Raikkonen and Silk Screen.
“We will probably end up with about a dozen and hopefully one or two might find their way into the winner’s enclosure,” concluded Mullins.
“The trick with Cheltenham is to have the whole stable in as good form as possible, and after a bit of a blip at Christmas I am really happy with how they are running again.”