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Arkle (Ire)

Arkle and Pat Taaffe
Photo by Rex Coleman

Arkle b g 1957 (Archive - Bright Cherry, by Knight of the Garter). Sire Line Phalaris. Family 41.

To regard Arkle's sire, the superbly bred wartime runner Archive, as useless as a racehorse would not have been entirely uncharitable. The pinnacle of his racing achievements was second place in a division of a one mile maiden race at the now defunct Stockton racecourse. By Nearco, out of the St. Leger winner Book Law, it should not have been like that if one followed the theory of breeding the best with the best. His pedigree was classical to the core, and laced with speed and stamina. But poor Archive possessed neither of these qualities. When his racing career ended it would have been no surprise had he been dispatched to the glue factory, which he certainly would have had he been from an earlier age. Fortunately, fate intervened and he lived to sire the greatest steeplechaser the world had ever seen.

Arkle was bred by Mrs. Mary Baker, of Malahow in County Meath. Her late husband had often talked of sending Bright Cherry, herself an excellent race mare, to Archive. Despite his lack of class on the racecourse she liked his classic breeding – and he was inexpensive. Had he been the prolific winner his breeding might have suggested, he would have commanded a considerable fee at stud – and there would have been no Arkle. As it was Archive was available for the price of a gypsy’s pony.

And so Bright Cherry made the visit to Archive at Loughtown Stud, Co. Kildare, and about eleven months later, on 19th April 1957, dropped his foal at the Ballymacoll Stud just before the sun rose over the Wicklow Mountains. Arkle, as yet un-named, created no great impression as a youngster other than being a kind horse, very intelligent, and easy to get on with. Had they known what they had on their hands, the Bakers would no doubt have kept him. But he had to go, and at Goff’s August 1960 sale he was knocked down to the Duchess of Westminster for 1150 guineas, not a great price but over double his reserve. The Bakers were happy.

Named after a Scottish mountain that bordered the Duchess of Westminster’s Sutherland estate, the young Arkle, trained at Killsalaghan by Tom Dreaper, prospered under his patient master. Nothing electric: unplaced in a couple of bumpers; some promising efforts over hurdles; a crashing fall whilst schooling (the only time he ever fell) and then came the Honeybourne Chase, a two-and-a-half mile novices ’chase at Cheltenham.

Like so many good Irish horses, spectacular reports preceded him. How they loved to frighten the English. More often than not their claims were discredited, but this did not deter the Irish from backing him as if money was going out of style. And Dreaper’s infant paid them back in spectacular fashion, cruising to a twenty length victory.

Arkle at Cheltenham in 1965
A. J. Byles

Four months later and rising six-years-old he was back at Cheltenham for the National Hunt Festival and the Broadway Novice’s Chase. It was another annihilation. The Irish were already envisioning him as the winner of the next year’s Gold Cup, and a further opportunity to plunder the bookmakers' satchels. But two days later their jaws must have dropped in shocked disbelief when Arkle’s stable companion, Fortria, was humbled by the English giant, Mill House, in the Gold Cup. Although past his best Fortria was top class, but Mill House had made him look pretty ordinary. It was a magnificent performance. The scribes were hailing Mill House as the best since Golden Miller. He was, after all, only a six-year-old, the same age as Arkle, and could easily equal Golden Miller’s record of five Gold Cups.

But seasoned observers were not convinced; the issue would not be settled until these two rising stars had met. This was to be in the Hennessy Gold Cup at Newbury. Such was their reputation by then – Arkle had been unbeaten in four races, including hacking up in a flat race, since Cheltenham – that their rivalry had become almost nationalistic.

One can imagine the patronising tongues wagging around the Newbury parade ring: “Yeah. Arkle’s a good horse, alright. But look at Mill House – he could pick Arkle up and carry him.” Mill House was indeed an enormous beast, nearly seventeen hands, and massively built. And sure enough, as the crowd left Newbury on that cold November evening there was no doubt that Mill House was the champion. Arkle could only finish third – over eight lengths behind.

The Irish were dumbfounded. They knew how good Arkle was. Mill House must be a wonder horse. But unnoticed through the mist that hung over the racecourse, Arkle had slipped on landing at the last open ditch, three fences from home, almost sliding to a halt, and blundering his way out of any chance he may have had. This excuse when made known was greeted with the usual expected scepticism. “Fences were there to be jumped; unlucky as he may have been, Arkle had failed to do so.” One sensed this may have been a brave defence by those backers of Mill House who knew what the outcome might have been had Arkle not slipped.

Whatever the personal views, the outcome had been inconclusive, setting up what was to be an unforgettable epic in the annals of steeplechasing when they met again in the Cheltenham Gold Cup. There were only two other runners: King’s Nephew and Pas Seul, a previous Gold Cup winner now well past his prime. Neither was considered a threat and both took little part in the contest, which became a match between the two favourites.

Mill House cut out the early work. In the stands one could sense the pounding hearts… and the silence, punctuated with the gasps of oohs and aahs with each mighty leap. Arkle matched him stride for stride, and turning down the hill, with three fences to jump, began to relentlessly cut down his lead. As they turned for home Willie Robinson on Mill House went for his whip; and Pat Taaffe began to shake up Arkle. Robinson drove Mill House for all he was worth, but he had given his all. Arkle took the lead just before the last fence, and landing safely, the stands exploded in a crescendo of cheering, as Arkle raced home a five lengths winner.

Arkle’s supremacy became overwhelming. No burden seemed capable of stopping him. In their next meeting, the following year’s Hennessy Gold Cup, Arkle was set to concede three-pounds to Mill House. Even this failed to bring them closer together; poor Mill House being humbled by a twenty-eight length defeat.

It is probable that Arkle wasn’t fully fit for the Hennessy, as he turned out a week later for Cheltenham ’s Massey Ferguson Gold Cup, over a distance short of his best and with a three-pound penalty for his Hennessy win. With 12st. 10lb. this was going to be no pushover. Buona Notte, a super novice, and Flying Wild, a top class race mare who looked more like an Oaks winner than a ’chaser, in receipt of twenty-six pounds and thirty-two pounds respectively, would see to that.

But Arkle was no respecter of weight concessions. Grabbing hold of his bit, and near pulling poor Taaffe’s arms out, he confiscated the lead four fences from home. Racing down the hill, as the weight began to tell, the grey mare Flying Wild came at him; then Buona Notte. Towards the last they both headed him. Buona Notte crashed through the birch, almost knocking the stuffing out of himself, but recovered and closed on the mare. And Arkle, having looked a beaten horse, also got going again, grinding away at the strength-sapping hill under his tremendous burden. It was the most thrilling of finishes, Flying Wild holding on by a short head from Buona Notte, with Arkle just a length away.

Even in defeat Arkle had been magnificent. Somehow it did not seem to matter that he had been beaten. He had conceded lumps of weight – not to two bottom of the handicap plodders, but to two high class ’chasers, both capable of winning top class races – and yet he had suffered only a narrow defeat. To many he was the moral victor.

Winning the Whitbread Gold Cup at
Sandown Park in April, 1965
A. J. Byles

Over the next two years Arkle was unbeaten, winning two more Cheltenham Gold Cups, a second Hennessy Gold Cup, Kempton Park’s King George VI ’Chase, Sandown Park’s Whitbread Gold Cup, and a newly framed race: the Gallaher Gold Cup, in which he gave Mill House sixteen pounds and a twenty-four length beating – and broke the course record by seventeen seconds. In handicapping terms this put him nearly three stone (42 lb.) superior to Mill House. Was it possible that one Gold Cup winner was almost three stone superior to another?

A. J. Byles

Arkle leading Mill House past the members' car park on his way to winning the Gallaher Gold Cup at Sandown Park in November, 1965

Defeat finally came trying to win his third Hennessy Gold Cup. It was the Handicapper that beat him; though even he couldn’t have foreseen his misdemeanour. The lightly weighted grey, Stalbridge Colonist, was in with only 10 st. Although a winner of almost a dozen races the previous season, he had never won a race beyond two-and-a-half miles, and the previous weekend had finished forty lengths behind Arkle’s stable mate, Dicky May, in a race at Ascot. And there was Arkle, with his usual 12 st. 7lb. It had hardly troubled him before – why now? But Stalbridge Colonist, with the benefit of the super lightweight jockey Stan Mellor on his back, launched himself at the last fence - and had the temerity to outjump Arkle half a length and, more importantly, the impetus to take him clear. For a moment it appeared that Stalbridge Colonist would win easily but, battling on gamely (one could never accuse Arkle of giving in without a fight), Arkle began to close. His prodigious burden, however, proved just too much - yet he went down by only half a length.

Did this mean that Arkle, in his first race of the season and possibly a shade unfit, was on the wane? Not in the slightest. Within a few weeks he was back in England (Arkle trained in Ireland) this time for the S.G.B. Handicap ’chase at Royal Ascot. Such was his popularity that the attendance was over a third up on the previous year’s meeting. Arkle did not disappoint them. He took the lead at the first fence and was never headed, winning by fifteen lengths and conceding 35 lb. to the runner-up. Another magnificent weight-carrying performance made it fitting that his name could now be added alongside the great champions that had won on the Royal Heath.

Arkle following his win in the S. G. B.
Handicap 'chase at Royal Ascot in 1966
A. J. Byles

It now seemed a mere formality that Arkle would win a fourth Cheltenham Gold Cup. There was just Kempton Park’s King George VI Chase to overcome – a conditions race he had won the year before – in which he only had to concede 21 lb. to his six opponents. But almost from the start Pat Taaffe sensed something was wrong. Arkle was jumping to the left on a right handed track (in hindsight he had done the same over the last few fences at Ascot ). It was clear that Arkle, if not struggling, was not the Arkle we knew. Invisible from the stands, Arkle had clipped the guard rail at the second fence with his off-fore, splitting the pedal bone. But a cracked pedal bone was certainly not going to stop him now.

Woodland Venture, the most likely danger, and an old adversary, Dormant, whom Arkle had distanced in the same race the previous year, both had a go at him. But Arkle never surrendered his lead easily, and he still led at the end of the first circuit. At the first fence in the back straight – and Kempton’s fences were not to be trifled with – Arkle went straight through it; in much the same way he had done at Cheltenham when winning his third Gold Cup. A gasp from the crowd; followed by a sigh as his remarkable balance rescued him. Biddlecombe drove Woodland Venture into the lead, but Arkle was having none of it, and by the next fence he was back in front.

By the second last, when Arkle would have normally taken leave of his field, Woodland Venture was still hanging on, and he challenged for the lead again. Almost upsides of Arkle as they took off, Woodland Venture crashed to the ground, leaving Arkle alone. Only one fence left and he would be home.

But creeping out of the depth of winter mist was Dormant, who under normal circumstances would not have caught Arkle if he had run to the end of the world. Dormant now appeared to be closing on Arkle at a phenomenal rate. The crowd was willing Arkle on – completely unaware of the excruciating pain that was stabbing into his off fore every time it touched the ground.

At the last fence Dormant was six lengths in arrears and even in receipt of 21 lb. his task looked formidable. But on the run-in the race took a dramatic change. Arkle’s stride faltered and shortened as Dormant relentlessly cut down his lead. It was only twenty yards from the winning post that Dormant finally caught him, but so slow was Arkle going now (he had almost slowed to a trot as he passed the winning post) that Dormant had a length to spare.

As Pat Taaffe – who worshipped the only perfect horse he had ever sat on – was led in, the anguished expression on his face told the whole story: Arkle had broken down. It was an anguish shared by all who had followed this great horse.

His injury was serious enough: the pedal bone was split over two inches. One must wonder at the pain he must have experienced racing over three miles – never attempting to pull-up, but fighting to the bitter end. Little wonder the public took him to their hearts.

A fourth consecutive Gold Cup was now out of the question; in fact the possibility of never seeing him on a racecourse again - and thus the end of an era - dawned on us.

Arkle coming in lame after his last race, the King George VI 'chase at Kempton Park, in December, 1966
A. J. Byles

As famous as Arkle had been on the racecourse, it was excelled by his fame as a patient. Regular bulletins appeared in the press and on television and radio. Get-well cards and letters adorned his box. Such was his celebrity that an address was unnecessary; cards and letters simply addressed "Arkle, Ireland" found their way to his box.

Arkle made good progress. The bone healed; special races were framed for him to assist his preparation for a fourth Gold Cup; not a stone was left unturned to get him back on the racecourse. But the Gold Cup came and went – won by Arkle’s stable companion Fort Leney, and the next one, won by the twelve-year-old What a Myth - both rated at least three-stone (42 lb) inferior to Arkle.

Just a few months short of two years since that sombre day at Kempton, when Arkle passed a winning post for the last time, the Duchess of Westminster announced his retirement. In some way our disappointment was tempered by the relief that this equine masterpiece would never again be risked to reproduce the brilliance he had shown over almost four spectacular seasons. He was nearly twelve years old and the possibility of him having to struggle against nonentities, who in his prime would have been dispatched with ease, would have been too much to bear.

And that was very nearly the end of Arkle. He made a few more public appearances at the Horse of the Year Show where he delighted his public. Ears pricked, listening to the applause of the crowd, perhaps he may have thought he was going racing again. On one evening he fed on apples and pears from a fruiterer’s cart, and on another, the show’s hydrangeas, in much the same way as the Duke of Westminster’s Ormonde had fed on geraniums and orchids at a Grosvenor House Party nearly a century before.

Spring came, and with it an increasing stiffness in his hindquarters. It became so bad that he was having trouble moving, and there was the possibility of him lying down and being unable to get up. One can imagine the thoughts of the Duchess of Westminster as she saw him for the last time – lying down, those powerful memories flashing before her. Perhaps she would have remembered the afternoon of March 7th 1964 – Gold Cup Day. It was the day she saw the greatest steeplechaser she had seen in a lifetime win the race of the year: Mill House and Arkle, stride for stride, racing for the final turn to face the famous Cheltenham hill; Robinson on Mill House going for his whip, and Taaffe shaking up Arkle. She would remember the relief as Arkle took the lead at the last fence and raced away as if the whole of Ireland was shouting him home.

It was a Sunday afternoon, around teatime. Just six years had passed by to that fateful day: 31st May 1970; Arkle took his final injection and passed into the hand of legend.

Arkle was buried at the Duchess of Westminster's
farm at Bryanstown, near Maynooth,
County Kildare, Ireland.
A. J. Byles

Arkle is pictured above with his lad Johnny Lumley. He did not ride and was given both Arkle and Flyingbolt when he went to work for Tom Dreaper. Flyingbolt (Airborne), a flashy chesnut with a vile temper, was also one of the best. In 1966 at Cheltenham he won the Champion Chase and the next day finished third in the Champion Hurdle.

There were great steeplechasers before Arkle: The Lamb and Manifesto; and of the latter day marvels, Easter Hero, Cottage Rake, and of course Golden Miller, among many others. There have been great runners since; but Arkle’s performances on the racecourse have left his name, after nearly half a century, one to conjure with. A measure of his greatness rests with his course record carrying 12 st. 7lb. over three miles at Sandown Park, set in 1965, which still stands to this day, and what other equine masterpiece has forced such a change in the rules of racing? Handicaps were framed with two sets of weights: one if he ran and one if he did not, to prevent all the runners from being lumped together on the lowest weight.

Arkle was incomparable. Not only was he a great athlete, but he had an inexplicable presence that captivated all who were touched by him. The adulation with which he was regarded extended beyond the racing public. There was no doubt he was arrogant, as could be testified by the way he would appear to swagger round the parade ring or savour the applause after one of his victories. And the heights he would sometimes clear his fences - was he not just taking the rise out of the opposition? Yes, arrogant he may have been. But he had plenty to be arrogant about.

It is no hyperbole that Arkle – a freak of nature – was the greatest steeplechaser since Messrs O’Callaghan and Blake raced their horses from St. John's Church, Buttevant to St. Mary's Church, across from Doneraile Park, St. Leger over two centuries ago, and so set the sport of steeplechasing a-galloping. There may have been others fit to name in the same breath but none has left us with a legacy of such supremacy.

Maybe, in some distant time, there will be an equal, but certainly in the lifetime of the writer of these lines, it seems doubtful that we shall ever see his like again.

Anthony Byles
Thanks to Sandra Snider, editor extraordinaire, for all her help

Anthony Byles. All rights reserved.


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