Thursday 26 April 2018

Hobby horse of a different colour

A glimpse of Arkle as a child ignited one man's love for racing and its artefacts, writes John O'Brien

John O'Brien

NICK O'TOOLE'S house near the centre of Naas betrays the nature of his obsession.

The living room is a veritable clutter that only a single man could get away with, a jumble of fine prints, portraits, statues, books, the pieces of racing history he has accumulated in more than three decades of collecting. Off the hallway there is a medium-sized storeroom stacked ceiling-high with historical treasures, their value weighed in sentiment as much as hard cash.

He is keen to make a distinction. He is a collector, but not a hoarder. Sitting in his home he understands that even his most precious artefacts have little meaning. But put them together in the right way and you begin to form a story, a little window into the past. "It all begins to make sense," he says. "You see, memorabilia isn't there to be hidden away. It's for people to enjoy. It's part of who we are. It's in our psyche."

It amuses him to think there is no single word for what he does. He is a racing memorabilia collector, but it is such a mouthful. If beer mats were his thing, they'd call him a tegestologist and he could take his pick of which coasters' society to join. And yet it strikes him that what he does can't be explained in one word or captured by inanimate objects that have no story to relate beyond their own being. It is something deeper than that.

What he does is best seen in the pubs around the country where much of his bounty is sent for public display. A homage to Lester Piggott in The Gallops near Leopardstown. A celebration of Vincent O'Brien's greatest achievements in The Orchard in Stillorgan. The glory days of Boss Croker and Seamus McGrath of Glencairn vividly recreated in the Golden Ball in Kilternan. A shrine to Arkle in the Poitín Still in Rathcoole.

All told the old-fashioned public house is as fitting a museum as he could wish for. "Go into any pub in Ireland," he says, "and when people see a picture of a racehorse on the wall they'll wander over to have a look at it. They're drawn to it. It's like a magnet. Especially if it's an old black and white print. There's just something about it. I travel a lot and I don't see that anywhere else."

The sharing is the thing. Last year he designed a memorial to Vincent O'Brien at The Curragh on the day they first staged the National Stakes in the trainer's honour. Vincent's widow, Jacqueline, donated artefacts and period furniture from their home and O'Toole presented it in such a way that the viewer could imagine himself entering O'Brien's living room and reliving history. John Magnier was among those who called, praising his work, and in the gratitude of others, he derives the greatest satisfaction.

He knows he is hopelessly obsessed but in a wholesome way. And like all great obsessions, it began in childhood. With Himself, in fact. His first memory is of attending the Leopardstown races with his father, witnessing Arkle saunter to victory a month before his third Gold Cup at Cheltenham. The electricity of the occasion and the sense of living history surged through him. He was nine years old. The same age as Arkle.

The family home was just up the road in Stepaside. Back then that meant racing country. Glencairn, where Richard Eyre Croker had built his famous stud and sent Orby to win the Epsom Derby, was just down the road. In O'Toole's day, Seamus McGrath had taken over and, it seemed, employed half the parish. Bill Durkan trained nearby too and, for a few years, Fr Sean Breen was the parish priest. Racing was all around him and in him.

Back then he was just another kid collecting things. Some did stamps or leaves or football stickers, O'Toole did racing. Racecards from the days he or his father went racing. Newspaper clippings of Arkle and other great horses. Copies of The Sporting Life, the racing bible of the day. Anything with a racing theme, he duly collected and stored, never imagining how far such an innocent youthful pursuit would take him.

It wasn't until the late '80s that hobby became full-blown obsession. It struck O'Toole that for all Arkle's heroics, no film had been made. He saw a gap in the market and a duty to the memory of a great horse. It helped that all of the protagonists were alive and, best of all, the Duchess of Westminster, Arkle's owner, had nine minutes of colour footage that few had ever seen. Niall Toibin was drafted in as narrator, The Chieftains supplied the music and a fitting tribute -- Arkle The Legend -- was made.

During the making of the film O'Toole got to spend time with Tom Dreaper and his family at their home in Greenogue. They chatted about Arkle and other great horses that had passed through the trainer's hands and, when they were finished, Dreaper handed him a box, stuffed with Arkle memorabilia, and asked him to mind it. For O'Toole, Dreaper couldn't have done more had he handed him a box full of gold bullion.

Over the years he built up an incomparable stack of Arkle memorabilia: cards addressed to 'Arkle, Ireland', telegrams, original racecards and prints, hair from the horse's mane, countless other artefacts. Still he faced the problem that confronts every collector at some stage or other. What did he possess that was truly unique? That no one else could claim to have or anything related? That was the dream that sustained him. A few years ago, he came close. A framer he knew in Rathcoole called to say a woman had walked into the shop with a framed portrait of Arkle she wished to sell. Not just any portrait, but one that had been signed by Dreaper, the Duchess and every jockey that had ridden Arkle on the racecourse. O'Toole got in contact and struck a deal. A copy he made and had signed by all the surviving jockeys went for over €10,000 at a charity auction.

Then a while back he got a tip-off telling him that the saddle Pat Taaffe had used when riding Arkle was to be auctioned at Sotheby's in London. O'Toole's eyes lit up. He remembered the time Piggott had auctioned a Derby-winning saddle and Coolmore spent a fortune to acquire it. It set him thinking about Taaffe's saddle and where it had got to. "I never knew where it was until I saw the catalogue," he says.

He travelled last week more in hope than expectation. He knew such a piece of racing history wouldn't come cheap or without stiff competition. On the floor he was being opposed by one person, and at least one keenly interested party was said to be monitoring the auction by telephone. To stand any chance, O'Toole reckoned he would have to part with anything up to £30,000. Then the hammer came down at £11,000 and, unbelievably, the saddle was his. He was perplexed and delighted. The most impressive piece of Arkle memorabilia anyone had seen in years was his for a relative song. Taaffe, he explains, had just two saddles and nearly always used the weather-beaten one that came up for auction. He used it on the 26 times he rode Arkle, in winning the 1968 Gold Cup on Fort Leney and when riding other legendary horses like Gay Trip and Flyingbolt.

"I couldn't believe my luck when the bidding stopped so low," O'Toole says. "I mean there was unbelievable interest in it and I was prepared to go a lot higher than I did. The presentation wasn't great I suppose. There were no stirrups or girth with it and, even if they weren't his, it would have looked better. I don't know whether that put people off. It shouldn't but you never know."

He can't say yet exactly what he will do with the saddle, but he hopes it will find a home in a public place where it can be enjoyed by anyone who appreciates racing history. Since Taaffe retired in 1970, the saddle has remained with its owner in the UK. Now it is coming home and, for O'Toole, there is something proper and hugely significant about that.

"That's how it should be. I spend three months every year in Australia and the Arkle equivalent over there is Phar Lap. I had five of his racecards and the catalogue when he was bought as a yearling in New Zealand, all originals, and I thought what a sin to have them in Ireland. So I sent them to Sotheby's and made sure the racetrack in Victoria was informed and they bought them. Okay, I made money out of it but I got a bigger kick knowing they were back where they should be."

And so you ask him what next? How does he top Arkle's saddle? He has always dreamed of acquiring Nijinsky's silks from the 1970 Derby but knows he could never outbid Coolmore if they ever came up. Instead, he just hopes we never lose sight of our unique racing heritage as a nation. He worries about it. He sees other sports so well served by their historians, but apart from himself and the likes of Guy Williams and Tony Sweeney, he wonders if racing does enough by comparison.

It perplexes him that, despite his legendary status, there is no fitting memorial to Arkle in this country. He tells a story too that reflects the unfortunate greed of the boom years. Three years ago, Navan racecourse unveiled a glitzy new stand, named it after Arkle who won his first race there, and asked O'Toole to create a display for the grand opening. He asked them what kind of budget was available. No more than €400 they said.

"I thought they were joking. They spent something like €5m on the stand and all they would spend on Arkle was €400. What does that tell you about their priorities? He's the greatest horse to have ridden at the track, or any track for that matter. You're naming it the Arkle Bar and that's all you'll spend. I found it very disappointing."

He's not downhearted, though. He sees a renewed appetite for nostalgia these days, a general feeling that something had been lost in the chase for wealth, a collective need to get back to basics. Arkle, he imagines, can always be reinvented, the story packaged and repackaged for generations to come. And as he explains this he laughs as he recalls the text his brother, Mick, sent him from Sydney last week when he heard about the saddle.

"Congratulations," the message went. "Now will you ever let that great horse rest in peace."

Sunday Independent

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