In jump racing, there’s a single name which stands as the ultimate benchmark of excellence. Arkle.
Born in 1957, bred by Mary Baker in County Dublin, a bay colt was bought by Anne, Duchess of Westminster. She named him after a Scottish mountain. Arkle spent a quiet year maturing on her Cheshire estate before heading for Tom Dreaper’s yard back in Ireland to begin his formal training.
The people involved in Arkle’s early life gave him time to develop physically and mentally. He returned their patience in kind with a gentle and obliging nature, but their reward when he began his steeplechasing career would go beyond anything they could have imagined.
Arkle’s achievements scorched the pages of the record books, with winning margins frequently into double figures. Even the sacred territory of the racing rule book could not survive unscathed. His jaw dropping brilliance left the Irish racing authorities scratching their heads. Their response was to devise a dual handicap system, using one for the races he ran in, and one for all the rest.
In Ireland, he was simply known as ‘Himself’.
His win in the 1964 Cheltenham Gold Cup is one of racing’s iconic golden moments, when Arkle established his status as the sport’s number one star. The race was billed as a clash of titans, with the Irish-trained Arkle taking on the English-trained defending champion, Mill House. Such was the stature of these horses, only two other opponents lined up for the race. It was Mill House who started as race favourite and lead throughout but, under a patient ride by Pat Taaffe, Arkle drew level at the second last and pulled away to win by five lengths.
Arkle retained his crown the following year, this time beating his old rival Mill House by 20 lengths. His winning distance the following year was 30 lengths.
Between 1962 and 1966 he won 22 of his 26 steeplechases. Two of his defeats were due to the weight he had to carry, and one caused by slipping on landing after a fence. The fourth and final defeat came when he was beaten by just a length, and was found to have injured his foot. This would ultimately end his spectacular career, but completing the race was testament to his incomparable power and attitude. He was all heart.
The word Arkle is no longer a name. It’s a definition of brilliance for each generation of horses to aspire to. The bar has been set so high, many are adamant it will never be surpassed or even threatened. On top of his three Cheltenham Gold Cups, his wins include two Hennessy Gold Cups, one Whitbread Gold Cup, one King George VI Chase, and one Irish Grand National.
In the run up to Best Mate’s third Cheltenham Gold Cup in 2004, Sir Peter O’Sullevan was asked whether a horse had at last been found who could be compared to the mighty Arkle. Initially reluctant to answer, he was eventually persuaded to respond.
My dear, there was only one Arkle.