Monday 23 October 2017

Four-legged charmer ignites love affair that still burns

Arkle takes the final fence to win the Gold Cup at Cheltenham in 1965 with jockey Pat Taffe
Arkle takes the final fence to win the Gold Cup at Cheltenham in 1965 with jockey Pat Taffe

Tommy Conlon

Maybe it was all old hat to those that knew the story, but for those of us who didn't, it was a valuable history lesson and something of a revelation.

If horse racing is a sport that more or less passes you by, bar the big occasions, you'd know just enough to know that Arkle was a legend of the game. But the documentary shown on TG4 and Channel 4 last week explained exactly how he achieved his towering reputation.

And watching the story being retold, the scale of the horse's impact on Irish life in the 1960s quickly became apparent.

Just as Muhammad Ali transcended boxing at the time, and George Best did likewise in football, Arkle transcended racing. It was the first age of the sportsman as media celebrity and a superstar from the equine world arrived right on cue to take his place in the fame game. Ali and Best weren't just extraordinary practitioners of their trades, they had a charisma that was made for the mass audiences newly created by television. They caught the spirit of the times.

And somehow a horse, too, also managed to capture a slice of the zeitgeist. Arkle, improbably, became an icon of the swinging Sixties, if not for the dandies on Carnaby Street, then for the proletarian hordes, both urban and rural, that were in thrall to the rough dramas of the Turf.

He became by general consensus the greatest steeplechaser in history. But the times demanded more of its champions and so he, like Ali and Best, delivered more too. The horse had an ego; he knew he was the dude; he was in his own way a strolling boulevardier. And the people loved him for his princely self-regard.

The documentary rolled out some wonderful vintage footage of Arkle in action, and as he paraded around beforehand, meeting his adoring public. He was, it could be said, just as aristocratic in his bearing as the woman who owned him. "He loves a crowd," said the Duchess of Westminster in one of many interviews unearthed from the TV archives. "He really is rather an old show-off. He loves people looking at him."

Brough Scott, the veteran racing chronicler, said Arkle "was more aware of himself, and the interest in him, than any horse I'd ever seen". One race commentator, watching him prance down the course before a race, simply observed: "Cool as the proverbial cucumber."

The 1964 Cheltenham Gold Cup, dubbed 'the race of the century', made his legend. Irish-bred, and trained by Tom Dreaper from his yard on the Meath-Dublin border, Arkle carried the hopes of a country into the Cotswolds that Festival week in March. He would be going up against the best steeplechaser in England, already deemed an all-time great, the relentless galloper Mill House.

Arkle surged away from him up the hill and sailed home. Only little more than a week earlier, a young Cassius Clay had defeated the omnipotent Sonny Liston for boxing's heavyweight crown. And now the seemingly invincible champion of National Hunt racing had also been dethroned. It was a poignant misfortune of timing for Mill House and his connections.

His jockey, Willie Robinson, told the film makers he was "devastated" by the result. Cath Walwyn, widow of Mill House's trainer Fulke Walwyn, described the impact on her husband at the time. "I think that was Fulke's most shattering moment of all his career, really. He could not believe it. He just thought that Mill House was unbeatable." Instead of Mill House becoming the horse of the century, it was Arkle.

Back in Ireland, Arkle's triumph ignited a love affair between horse and nation. A country desperately searching for some pride and prestige found it in a four-legged charmer of quite stunning athletic talent. In the 1965 Gold Cup, he beat Mill House by 20 lengths.

His feats on the track were by this stage phenomenal. Carrying 28lbs more than his nearest rival in the 1964 Irish Grand National, the horse still swept home in first place.

The entire handicapping system, developed and refined over the previous hundred years, had to be revised to factor in Arkle's unprecedented greatness.

For nigh on three seasons he was untouchable. When a serious rival finally emerged, it turned out to be a stablemate in Dreaper's yard, a cantankerous horse named

Flyingbolt. They were never matched in a race but, said Ted Walsh, Flyingbolt was Arkle's equal for a period of about 18 months.

The Bolt was something of a character too, as Dreaper explained in a marvellous black-and-white excerpt from the vaults. This horse had been "very naughty" before he was castrated, explained the trainer with a mischievous smile. "He got out of where he ought to have been in a paddock and he covered a she-ass. And I believe the (resulting) mule, or jennet, whichever you call it, can beat everything going to the creamery in Patrickswell."

Arkle's career was cut short by a fractured bone in his foot sustained during the 1966 King George at Kempton. He never raced again. Arthritis set in early into his retirement and eventually he was struggling to stand up. In 1970, the decision was taken to put him to sleep.

There are statues to him now; he is an indelible part of racing folklore; and he probably merits a chapter at this stage in the school history books too.

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