Half a century after his death Arkle still heads the field of greatness

If you come seeking folksy clichés, then look somewhere else. You’ll find no bottles of Guinness mixed in the daily feed bucket or homemade Christmas cards addressed simply to ‘Himself, Ireland.’ No singing of sentimental ballads, no mystical healing powers or descriptions of horses with human characteristics.
Half a century after his death Arkle still heads the field of greatness

POETRY IN MOTION: Arkle and Pat Taafe en route to victory in the 1965 Gallaher Gold Cup, arguably his most impressive victory.	Photo by Dennis Oulds/Central Press/Getty Images
POETRY IN MOTION: Arkle and Pat Taafe en route to victory in the 1965 Gallaher Gold Cup, arguably his most impressive victory. Photo by Dennis Oulds/Central Press/Getty Images

If you come seeking folksy clichés, then look somewhere else. You’ll find no bottles of Guinness mixed in the daily feed bucket or homemade Christmas cards addressed simply to ‘Himself, Ireland.’ No singing of sentimental ballads, no mystical healing powers or descriptions of horses with human characteristics.

There’ll be no mention of poor old Mill House’s broken heart or forced changes to handicapping rules that had sufficed for centuries until ‘he’ came along. (No capital ‘H’ either.) All that has been done a thousand times by now.

All that you will find here are two races with Arkle in them. Two races to remember his career on the 50th anniversary of this peerless horse’s death (which falls tomorrow).

A tough task, picking just the two. Arkle ran in over 30 races, won 27 and at least a dozen of these could easily replace these chosen two as representative of the imprint he left on National Hunt racing and the enduring legacy that has barely faded in five decades.

Sandown Park: November 1965. The Gallaher Gold Cup.

By now Arkle has reached his prime at the age of eight and can only be beaten by bad luck or happenstance – never by ability. He’s already won of two of his three Cheltenham Gold Cups and is mopping up Grade One chases all over Britain and Ireland with ridiculous ease. Talented opponents, cursed by the time of their birth, toil in his wake like average staying chasers.

The march to greatness began four years earlier in 1961 at the late and still lamented track at Mullingar, which closed in 1967.

Despite sterling efforts by town notables, including Joe Dolan, it never reopened and the site of Arkle’s first day at school is now just a soulless industrial park. The race was a bumper worth £132, and he only finished third. A journey of a thousand miles had begun with one unremarkable step.

The first true critical juncture of his career came when aged six he won then Broadway Chase, (now RSA) by 20 lengths at the Cheltenham Festival.

In the words of Lord Oaksey, the racing journalist and broadcaster, “he simply shot from between the two leading horses like a cherry stone from a schoolboys’ fingers.” Two days later his contemporary, Mill House won the Gold Cup with even greater ease. A fabled rivalry had been born.

In reality, the tension in that rivalry was short-lived. Mill House beat a mistake-prone Arkle in a foggy Hennessy in their first head to head battle in November 1963, but fervent hopes of immortality for the English trained monster were dashed in the rematch a few months later.

Arkle won the 1964 Gold Cup easily and in all the subsequent clashes he only saw Mill House through his rear-view mirror.

The Gallaher Gold Cup was then one of the season’s most prestigious handicap chases and was Arkle’s first race of the 1965 campaign.

Mill House by now was allowed 16 pounds by his old foe and ridden for the first time by David ‘Frenchie’ Nicholson who jumped off keenly in front but by the time they’d passed the stands on the first circuit Pat Taaffe had eased Arkle into the lead.

Looking at the grainy black and white footage of the race now the warmth of the applause as Arkle galloped past the stands sounds strikingly heartfelt and far warmer than the formulaic roar of present-day Saturday afternoons.

On the turn into the back straight Nicholson lit up Mill House again but Arkle latched onto his rear wheel like a barnacle and both horses jumped fast and accurately.

At the third last, Sandown’s signature pond fence, Arkle jumped upsides and a hundred metres later he was five lengths clear. The acceleration was breath-taking, by the winning post the margin was twenty-lengths.

The speed at which he appeared to finish this race was no mirage. The track record had been sliced by 17 seconds by a horse carrying twelve-seven with a jockey sitting reasonably silently to the line.

Arguably the greatest jumping performance the game has ever witnessed.

The King George Chase, Kempton Park, December 1966.

At Christmas, a little over a year after his stunning Sandown performance, Arkle travelled to a frosty Kempton Park to defend his title in the King George Chase.

Six opponents turned up to take on the now three-time Gold Cup winner, mostly in the hope of some handy place money, decent animals, yet still a mile behind Arkle.

Everything went as expected for most of the race but despite having a clear at the last from the useful Dormant, Arkle jumped awkwardly and faltered badly on the run in. He was caught close home and beaten a length.

A disappointing result but the real horror was yet to come. Arkle had thumped the saddle board on take off at an open ditch earlier in the race and it transpired that he had cracked a pedal bone in his off-fore hoof.

He was visibly lame by the time he reached the unsaddling enclosure and was confined to his box a Kempton for the next couple of months before a homeward journey could even be risked.

Many present day ‘Arklophiles’ still argue that the courage and tenacity he showed that day when beaten only a length despite a broken foot was the greatest achievement of his career.

They could be right, but the only certainty from that sad day at Kempton is that it was the last time he ever raced.

But there are no folksy clichés in the next bit either. No doe eyed recollections of a courageous attempt at rehabilitation on his owner’s farm, confined in a straw padded stable with just a sparky little donkey for company. Of how he bravely worked himself back to the point where he was put back into training and carefully prepared to race again.

How trainer Tom Dreaper hired extra resources to deal with the flood of fan mail, the get-well cards and gifts that poured in for this beloved horse.

The inevitable announcement came just before the start of the 1967 season and Arkle’s retirement from racing was confirmed.

In truth, he was never really expected to fully recover from that unlucky saddle board bang. His retirement proved to be mercilessly brief. He gradually grew uncomfortable with arthritis and on this very weekend, 50 years ago, at the age thirteen, his pain was compassionately ended.

Was Arkle really that good? Some revisionists, mostly British, are actively contesting his record ‘Timeform’ rating of 212 which if accurate suggests that he would have beaten Kauto Star by about 20 lengths, Desert Orchid by 25 and the current Gold Cup champion, Al Boom Photo, by a distance.

This is hard to conceive admittedly but watch again that old Gallaher Chase and marvel at his sheer athleticism or the King George to witness his bottomless heart and courage. Doubts will soon be banished.

But above all else, Arkle was a national treasure, who emerged from the lush misty plains of County Meath, a potent symbol of a confident new Republic, sticking it to the old enemy and leaving their best floundering in his long-striding wake. Dammit! That’s a cliché.

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