There aren’t many animals who have a bronze statue built in their honour, whose skeleton is on permanent display, and who had a stamp minted bearing their image. But in Ireland, when that animal is a horse, it’s a little easier to understand. Not any old horse, mind you. Not a scrubber like Sir Ivor, or Nijinsky, or even an under-achiever like Dawn Run. They were good. They were very good, on the flat, and over hurdles or fences. But they weren’t Arkle.
The distinguished racing commentator Peter O’Sullevan once described the horse as a ‘freak of nature’, the like of which we would never see again. So far he hasn’t been proved wrong. Arkle was, and remains the best horse ever to jump fences for a living. That’s not just my opinion, that’s official. He has a Timeform rating of two hundred and twelve, that’s the highest ever awarded to a steeplechase horse. Only one other animal, his stable companion, the hurdler Flyingbolt, comes within twenty points of that rating.
Arkle was a Meathman, born in Ballymacoll stud near Dunboyne in 1957, and was named after a Scottish mountain that bordered an estate owned by Anne, Duchess of Westminster, who acquired the horse, and in whose colours he raced. He was trained by one Irish racing legend, Tom Dreaper, not far from Ashbourne, and ridden by another, the great Pat Taafe.
I should declare an interest. I’m old enough to have seen him in action. As a child I have a clear recollection of Arkle in one of his Cheltenham Gold Cup victories. It was his third outing, in 1966. He made a mess of a fence on the first circuit and almost came a cropper. Second time around, as he approached the same fence, we wondered how he would handle it this time. He cleared it with enough room to spare to have allowed a double-decker bus to have driven underneath.
In any other National Hunt racing generation the Irish-born, English-trained, Mill House would have dominated. He looked set fair to rule the mid-1960s when he won the Gold Cup in 1963. He also beat Arkle in the Hennessy Gold Cup that year. It was the first of a number of duels between the two. Mill House was hot favourite for the 1964 Cheltenham Gold Cup, the Blue Riband of National Hunt racing. Only two other horses competed in the race that year. Which is to say that they were entered. No one could compete with Arkle and Mill House. The two great horses stayed together for almost the entire race, until Arkle pulled ahead over the closing stretch, to win by five lengths.
Those were different times. Ireland was still a relatively impoverished poor relation, independent of Britain for barely forty years, and not making a great fist of it either. Irish horses and trainers didn’t ownCheltenham the way they often do in more recent times. Arkle versus Mill House (despite the latter’s place of birth) became Ireland versus England. Arkle’s victory meant that he became a national talisman, in the way that Jack Charlton’s soccer teams of the 1990s did.
He came back twelve months later, on this occasion as favourite, and beat Mill House all over again. This time the margin was twenty lengths! He started the 1966 Gold Cup at odds of ten to one ON! In case you are not well versed in betting odds, that means you had to invest ten quid for the joy of receiving one quid of bookie’s money when he won. Which, of course, he did, by thirty lengths this time!
Outside of the Cheltenham Gold Cup, where handicapping played a role, he would often find himself carrying ridiculous weights. If Pat Taafe had just been riding Arkle he could have been tucking in to five course meals every night and still making the weight. For example, he won the 1964 Irish Grand National by only a single length. The fact that he was carrying two and a half stone more than his nearest rivals might have been a contributory factor.
But he wasn’t just a horse either. Arkle was almost human. He, allegedly, drank Guinness twice a day, and got on with people better than most other people. He was afforded the ultimate Irish accolade when he became known simply as, ‘Himself’.
His last race was the December 1966 King George VI Chase at Kempton park. He was carrying half a ton more than anyone else, fractured his pedal bone, and still almost won. After four months in plaster Dreaper and the Duchess decided enough was enough, and he never raced again. He died in 1970 at the early age of thirteen, when he might, conceivably, have still been winning races.
The death of Arkle, or just plain ‘Himself’, one of the most beloved of horses in a horse mad nation, was announced thirty-eight years ago, on this day.