Arkle: 50 years since a legend began

Updated: December 8, 2011

This week 50 years ago a horse made his debut on a racecourse. Little did anyone know at that time that it would mark the starting point of the greatest jumping career that anyone has ever seen. The horses name was Arkle.

Named after a Scottish mountain, Arkle is universally acknowledged as the greatest jumps horse that ever lived. Sired by Archive and out of the mare Bright Cherry, Arkle was bought by Ann, Duchess of Westminister, at the sales in the RDS in Dublin.

Sent to trainer Tom Dreaper, Arkle had a modest beginning to his career. He won a few small prizes in bumpers and over hurdles, however it was only when he jumped his fence that his legend would take off.

1964 will be a year that will never be forgotten by any Arkle supporters. Arkle was attempting to land his first Cheltenham Gold Cup, however in his way was a horse that many in England considered to be unbeatable, the giant Mill House.

The pair had met once previously when Mill House landed the Hennessy Gold Cup at Newbury from Arkle the previous November. That day Arkle slipped at the second last and cost himself any chance of victory. Mill House supporters dismissed Arkle and couldn’t see past their horse. The Irish, lips shut, waited for the third week in March for revenge. They would be handsomely rewarded.

It was a classic Anglo Irish showdown. In one corner the giant, nimble Mill House. Lethal and light at his fences with speed and stamina to burn, he was considered the best that had been seen on an English racecourse.

Facing him was the green hope of Ireland. Taller and leaner than Mill House, Arkle was the more manageable of the two. His jumping was smooth as silk and he had a deep turbo in reserved for the end of his races.

What happened still lingers in the memory. Arkle eye balled Mill House and shot clear like a bullet from a gun. Peter O’Sullivan’s never to be forgotten line of ‘this is the best we have seen for a long long time’ still sends a shiver down the spine and a tear to the eye.

If that had been the end of the Arkle story it would have sufficed. It turned out to only be the beginning. Arkle would go on to break every record imaginable and carve himself into Irish pop culture in the process.

Imagine this. Best Mate was the last triple Gold Cup winner. Could you imagine Best Mate giving Kauto Star or Denman over a stone in weight and still beat them by up to 20 lengths? Arkle did this time and again as he ripped up the record books and destroyed conventional thinking.

He was so far ahead of his rivals at one stage that the Irish racing authorities took the unprecedented step of devising two weight scales should Arkle run. One in case he ran and the other if he didn’t.

Aside from his three Gold Cups, Arkle triumphed in a number of important handicap chases including the 1964 Irish Grand National (under 12-0), the 1964 and 1965 Hennessy Gold Cups (both times under 12-7), the 1965 Gallagher Gold Cup (conceding 16lb to Mill House) and breaking the course record by 17 seconds), and the 1965 Whitbread Gold Cup (under 12-7).

His Timform rating of 212 still stands to this day and his achievements at Cheltenham have been immortalised where the Arkle Chase is named in his honour. While the tag of greatness is hurled around nowadays with careless abandon, Arkle was and still is the greatest jumps horses that the world has seen.

He set the bar for every horse that has any notion of been mentioned in the same breath as himself. Many have tried and they all have failed. 50 years on and the legacy of Arkle shines brightly as ever. It will do so for as long as horses are alive. He was, still is and will always be ‘simply the best’

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