Fifty years on, Arkle is still the greatest

EARLIER this week’s boxing’s ‘The Greatest’ Muhammad Ali, celebrated his 70th birthday and 50 years ago yesterday, National Hunt racing’s equivalent, the peerless steeplechaser Arkle, gained his first victory in a modest novice hurdle at Navan.

“Arkle possessed an athlete’s physical attributes: power, speed, judgement, balance, a quick eye, stamina and the ability to learn, absorb and then react instinctively. Other good horses have had these talents, or most of them, in good measure, Arkle simply possessed them in superabundance,” wrote Ivan Herbert in his biography of the wonder horse.

Paddy Murray, head lad with trainer Tom Dreaper, said that Arkle looked the worst of all the four-year-olds that arrived in the yard at Kilsallaghan, Co Dublin in 1961, remarking: “He moves badly.”

Johnny Lumley joined the Dreaper stables as a teenager in 1961 and Arkle was one of three horses he was given to ‘look after’ with the more senior Paddy Brown choosing another horse owned by Anne, Duchess of Westminster, the more attractive looking Ben Stack.

Arkle, bred by Mrs Mary Baker at Malahow in north Co Dublin and born at Ballymacoll Stud, Dunboyne, was bought by Dreaper for 1,150 guineas at Goffs Sales at Ballsbridge in August 1960 on behalf of the owner who named both him and Ben Stack after mountains in Scotland.

The three-mile race at Navan was Arkle’s third, having finished third and fourth in bumpers at Mullingar and Leopardstown. Mark Hely-Hutchinson was aboard on both occasions and holds the distinction of being the only one of the five riders to partner him on the racecourse not to visit the winner’s enclosure.

Pat Taaffe, who later to become the faithful companion of ‘Himself,’- a nickname later put on the great chaser - rode another Dreaper horse, the talented mare Kerforo, in the £133 to the winner Bective Novice Hurdle on Saturday, January 20th, 1962.

Kerforo, a useful chaser, went off the evens favourite, while Arkle, partnered by Liam McLoughlin, who got the nod ahead of Dreaper’s other main work rider, Paddy Woods, was an unconsidered 20-1 outsider in the 27-runner field.

A press report of the time said it was a fine afternoon with warmth in the sun. However, the heavy going made the three miles a real test of stamina. Inside the last six furlongs Kerforo’s main challenger was the Phonsie O’Brien-trained Blunt’s Cross, a useful chaser owned by Lord Fermoy and ridden by Lord Patrick Beresford, a noted polo player.

After Blunt’s Cross got the better of the favourite along came Arkle, full of running, to eventually prevail by a length-and-a-half. “Arkle was travelling terribly well and when I gave him a kick, he just sailed by the leading pair,” said Liam McLoughlin some years later.

Meanwhile Pat Taaffe was stunned by what he saw. “When he came past me he was flying, we were at the end of the race and it was as if he was only starting,” he said.

McLoughlin, enjoyed another notable success the following Thursday when partnering Kerforo to win the Thyestes Chase at Gowran Park when Taaffe again had to settle for third place.

Arkle had five more outings over hurdles, winning at Naas and Dundalk under Taaffe before Paddy Woods partnered him to his final foray over the smaller obstacles at Gowran Park.

The ‘Great One’ had another victory at Navan when TP Burns did the steering in a mile and six furlongs flat race as a warm-up to the 1963-64 jumping season.

While Arkle’s hurdles form was mixed, his chasing record was spectacular. Taaffe was aboard in all 26 races over fences and the pair won 22 of them.

The roll of honour was spearheaded by three Cheltenham Gold Cup triumphs and impressive handicap successes in Ireland and Britain despite having to concede ‘tons’ of weight.

Arkle could have equalled Golden Miller’s six Gold Cup victories but for the career-ending injury he suffered in the 1966 King George at Kempton. Sadly, he didn’t have a long retirement, having to be put to sleep on the last day of May, 1970.

A recent Channel 4 Racing poll resulted in ‘Himself’ being the most popular national hunt performer, ahead of Red Rum and Kauto Star. The first glimpse of his immense potential was shown 50 years ago this week.

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