Arkle: the ‘immortal’ racing superstar who won three Cheltenham Gold Cups

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  • The story of this equine gladiator, deemed “immortal” by his supporters, knows no bounds. Julian Muscat investigates Arkle’s supremacy – the likes of which may never be seen again

    Arkle’s origins

    Bay gelding, foaled 19 April 1957
    By Archive out of Bright Cherry, by Knight Of The Garter
    Owner: Anne, Duchess of Westminster
    Trainer: Tom Dreaper
    Breeder: Mary Baker
    Jockey: Pat Taaffe

    Arkle’s sire, Archive, was well bred but next to useless as a racehorse: he never managed to win a race of any description. That meant his stud fee was negligible, which prompted his breeder, Mary Baker, to choose him as a mate for Arkle’s dam, Bright Cherry. Bright Cherry won six times over jumps over two miles for the Tom Dreaper stable. Arkle’s breeder was only too happy to sell him as an unbroken three year-old for 1,150 guineas in 1960. The rest, as they say…

    “Arkle, Ireland.” Two words on the front of an envelope were sufficient for fan mail posted in Britain to find its way to Tom Dreaper’s stables in Co Meath, where Arkle was trained. Arkle’s fame was such that any further details were superfluous.

    It was a reflection of the reverence accorded a horse who was asked a series of searching questions in the mid-1960s, both in Britain and Ireland. Arkle answered them with dazzling brilliance. Each time the bar was raised, he responded by clearing it with greater margins to spare.

    In four seasons from 1962/63, Arkle won 24 times from 26 starts. His supremacy during these peak years was so pronounced that he often carried the welter-burden of 12st 7lb in handicaps, with the rest of the field carrying 10 stone. However, even this 35lb weight concession wasn’t enough to stop him.

    Yet Arkle’s racecourse achievements were only part of his beguiling story. Ireland in the 1960s was all about farming and raising horses. National totems were scarce, not least because the best young horses were often sold to wealthy British owners.

    Tom Dreaper’s set-up at Greenogue was about as rural as it got. From a family of cattle farmers, Dreaper’s training career gained immeasurably from the patronage of Anne, Duchess of Westminster, for whom he trained 97 winners. Had the Duchess not owned him, Arkle would likely have been sold to race in Britain. As it was, Arkle stayed at Greenogue, where he spent many an afternoon helping to round up sheep on the Dreaper farm.

    Child’s play

    Arkle won three successive Cheltenham Gold Cups between 1964 to 1966, each time with Pat Taaffe barely animated in the saddle. Those victories were like child’s play, since Arkle met his opponents at level weights, but his Gold Cup hat-trick was to become the modern benchmark of greatness. Only one horse, the Henrietta Knight-trained Best Mate, has managed to reprise it.

    “I am always asked to compare Best Mate with Arkle,” Knight says a shade wistfully, “and I have to say that Arkle was superior. They were different horses running in different eras, but Arkle is the best horse I have seen by a long way. You never know what life brings, but I don’t expect to see one like him again.”

    Knight only saw Arkle once in the flesh but the memory is indelible. “He had an air about him,” she recalls more than 50 years later. “I remember him as a very proud horse with a high head carriage.”

    It took a while for Arkle to evolve into the magnificent racing machine Knight describes. He won four times from six starts over hurdles, but he was only marking time. Steeplechasing would be his metier.

    “Mr Dreaper would school all his young horses over fences before they ever ran over hurdles,” says Paddy Woods, who looked after Arkle and rode him most days. “As a young horse, Arkle looked very ordinary. He wasn’t at all a great mover, but after we had him for a while he started to improve. He got better and better every month.”

    Arkle duly won his first six starts over fences before he ventured to Britain to contest the 1963 Hennessy Cognac Gold Cup at Newbury. He was receiving 5lb from Mill House, who’d won the Cheltenham Gold Cup eight months previously, and who was regarded as the finest steeplechaser in years.

    On that day, Mill House triumphed after Arkle slipped on landing at the third-last fence. The mishap cost Arkle valuable momentum, but little heed was paid to it in the euphoria of Mill House’s triumph. Arkle was seen as a real threat but Mill House, trained in Lambourn by Fulke Walwyn, had taken his measure.

    Nevertheless, Arkle’s connections were far from downcast. Dreaper’s son Jim, then 13, was allowed out of boarding school the day after Arkle’s Hennessy reverse.

    “Although Arkle was beaten, I remember there was a degree of optimism at home,” Dreaper recalls. “Pat Taaffe said we shouldn’t worry about it. Arkle had lost valuable ground when he slipped and he was adamant the horse was getting better all the time.”

    The reason for Taaffe’s upbeat assessment would become apparent four months later. Taaffe was convinced Arkle would turn the tables in the 1964 Gold Cup at Cheltenham. This time Arkle received no weight from Mill House, who started a hot favourite and adopted his customary front-running role.

    Approaching the third-last fence Arkle was four lengths adrift, which encouraged Mill House’s supporters to believe he was virtually home and dry. But Taaffe was merely biding his time. He only prompted Arkle after jumping the second-last and reeled in Mill House within a handful of strides.

    Come the winning post and Arkle had scampered away to win by five lengths, leaving racegoers stunned in disbelief. He had breezed past a horse many thought was invincible and he had barely broken sweat.

    Twelve months later and Arkle put on another Gold Cup tour de force when slamming Mill House by 30 lengths. He gained his third Gold Cup triumph at the odds of 10/1 on, but Dreaper is adamant Arkle’s finest days came in handicaps, where he was asked to concede lumps of weight to horses he would meet at level weights in the Gold Cup.

    “In those days, the best horses had no choice but to run in handicaps,” Dreaper relates. “Arkle put up his greatest performances in those races. There’s a saying in racing that weight will stop a train, never mind a horse. Arkle came closest to defying that.”

    The days when top-class steeplechasers ran in handicaps are all but extinct. There was great excitement after the 2007 Hennessy, when Denman carried 11st 12lb to a hard-fought victory, yet Arkle won the 1964 Hennessy when carrying 12st 7lb. He broke the course record by more than four seconds.

    That was but one of many scarcely credible handicap triumphs. “Those were the real tests for Arkle,” Dreaper says, “and though they were demanding, he stayed sound for such a long time. That was an important part of it.”

    Another was that Arkle’s placid demeanour made him everybody’s friend.

    “He was a very kind horse,” says Paddy Woods. “Anyone could ride him, and all the kids who came to see him could go into his box and have their photograph taken.”

    Part of Irish folklore

    In all likelihood, Arkle will never forfeit his status as the totemic horse in jump racing’s firmament. He is part of Irish folklore, an equine gladiator who came to be known as “Himself”. For all that, a largely overlooked tangent in the story is the younger stablemate at Dreaper’s talent-packed stable who might have been more than a match for him.

    Flyingbolt was Arkle’s antithesis: a nasty, raw-boned brute of a horse, yet no less able to carry huge weights to victory in handicaps. In his debut season in 1963/64 he won each of his four starts over hurdles, including what is now the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle at Cheltenham at odds of 9/4 on.

    He then won 11 consecutive races over fences, mostly over two miles, which conveniently kept him out of Arkle’s orbit (Arkle raced predominantly over three miles and beyond). The culmination to the 1965/66 campaign, with Pat Taaffe aboard, shone a spotlight on Flyingbolt’s extraordinary prowess.

    In December 1965, Flyingbolt won what is now the Paddy Power Gold Cup by 15 lengths under 12st 6lb.

    Three months later he won the Champion Chase by 15 lengths before he turned out again 24 hours later to finish third in the Champion Hurdle – he made a bad mistake at the top of the hill – over two miles. Less than four weeks later, this time under 12st 7lb and upped to 3¼ miles, Flyingbolt ran out a decisive winner of the Irish Grand National.

    At this point, Taaffe’s loyalty to Arkle was beginning to waver. “Once again, I was reminded that I was alternating between the king and crown prince of chasing,” he reflected some years later. “It seemed only a matter of time before Flyingbolt took over from Arkle.”

    Flyingbolt’s Irish Grand National victory posed the official handicapper a dilemma. The bare bones of it read just as well as Arkle’s victory in the same race two years earlier.

    “[The handicapper] Captain Louie Magee did confide to my father that he was unable to separate both horses at their peak,” says Jim Dreaper, “but he just couldn’t bring himself to acknowledge it. Instead, he rated Arkle 1lb better.”

    The argument about their respective merits was never resolved on the racetrack (see box, left). After his Irish Grand National triumph, Flyingbolt developed an illness and was never the same again. And Arkle sustained a nasty injury when he clattered into the guard rail at the second fence in the 1966 King George VI Chase at Kempton.

    Despite fracturing his pedal bone, Arkle continued to finish second to Dormant, whom he’d beaten by 30 lengths in the Gold Cup eight months earlier.
    “Arkle’s injury was big news at the time,” recalls Henrietta Knight. “People were devastated.”

    Arkle spent the next two months with his leg in plaster before he eventually retired aged 11 to Bryanston, the Co. Kildare estate of his owner, who’d named him after a mountain in the Scottish Highlands. He was put down there, aged 13, in 1970.

    Jim Dreaper on memories of Arkle and his father

    “No matter how hard my father [trainer Tom Dreaper] tried to treat him normally, Arkle was a star and he knew it. He was a bit of a poser: he was so busy looking around, showing off in the paddock, he’d walk slowly, forcing all the other horses to slow down with him.

    “I was sent to boarding school at six and the headmaster didn’t want us to have anything to do with racing. I was a teenager when Father was in his seventies, and he didn’t much like looking back. His view was that horses won in spite of the people around them, not because of them. Father didn’t used to talk much about Arkle.

    Arkle vs Flyingbolt

    Paddy Woods looked after Arkle for more than three years and sometimes rode Flyingbolt at Tom Dreaper’s Greenogue stables – the horse who came closest to Arkle’s Timeform rating. Woods also rode Arkle once under Rules, when winning the 1962 President Handicap Hurdle at Gowran Park.

    “There were different opinions in the yard, although most were for Arkle,” says Woods. “There was a gallop over the road where the ground in winter was usually heavy. When the two horses galloped over there, Flyingbolt went better. Arkle worked so badly there just before a race at Sandown that Mr Dreaper didn’t want to send him. We took him over and I rode him at Sandown on the morning of the race. A train came past us and Arkle took off. I knew then there was nothing wrong with my fellow. He went and won.”

    Henrietta Knight on Arkle’s style of jumping

    When Arkle took off over a fence, he would occasionally cross his near-fore hoof over his off-fore as he became airborne. When he didn’t, his forelegs were invariably very close together, which lent him a balletic disposition.

    “Arkle could make some bad mistakes,” says Knight. “He did it in the 1966 Gold Cup at Cheltenham, but it didn’t stop him. He parted the birch and kept going. He didn’t jump in the classically rounded way but he was certainly spring-heeled. It felt like he was immortal, which is why everybody was so shocked when he injured himself at Kempton.”

    Arkle in numbers

    Won 26 of 32 starts over hurdles and fences, including:

    2 Hennessy Cognac Gold Cups

    3 Leopardstown Chases

    3 Cheltenham Gold Cups

    212 Timeform rating, which has never been matched in 72 years of the publication’s history. The closest to him have been Flyingbolt (210), followed by Sprinter Sacre (192), and Kauto Star and Mill House (both 191)

    1 Irish Grand National, King George VI Chase and Whitbread Gold Cup

    Ref Horse & Hound; 8 October 2020