“Could be the best since Arkle” has been an often-stated opinion over the last 50 years. But one phrase never heard during the same period is “Better than Arkle”.
Only Red Rum can challenge Arkle’s position in the public consciousness as the most famous chaser of all time and even then it was Red Rum’s unique achievements in the Grand National - three wins and two seconds from five runs - that set him apart.
As recently as 2004, Arkle was still voted the favourite horse of all time by readers of the Racing Post newspaper.
Arkle is not unique in winning three Cheltenham Gold Cups. Cottage Rake and Best Mate also captured chasing’s Blue Riband three times, while Golden Miller racked up five consecutive wins in the championship race during the 1930s.
However, Arkle’s victories at Cheltenham were at the expense of another outstanding performer, Mill House and, coupled with his extraordinary weight-carrying performances in handicaps, the bay gelding, nicknamed “Himself”, became the greatest of all time.
His Timeform rating of 212 is the highest ever for a chaser, with his one-time stable companion Flyingbolt on 210, current superstar Sprinter Sacre a distant third on 192, and Mill House and Kauto Star sharing fourth on 191.
The Arkle story began on April 19, 1957, when Mary Baker’s mare Bright Cherry gave birth to a bay colt by the stallion Archive at the famous Ballymacoll Stud in Dunboyne, County Meath, Ireland. Archive was a superbly-bred son of the great stallion Nearco but had been a flop on the racecourse, meaning that his stud fee was a lowly 48 guineas. Bright Cherry had been a useful chaser herself, doing well in two-mile handicaps in Ireland on her favoured fast ground.
The as yet un-named colt was raised at the Baker’s farm near Naul in County Dublin in a steady, traditional way. On August 4, 1960, the three-year-old gelding was offered for sale at the Goff’s Annual August Sales at Ballsbridge with a reserve of 500 guineas and caught the eye of legendary trainer Tom Dreaper, an unassuming but totally dedicated Irishman and expert handler of chasers, most notably Prince Regent.
Dreaper went to 1,150 guineas, a relatively high-figure at the time, to secure the Archive gelding on behalf of owner Anne, Duchess of Westminster. Known to her friends as ‘Nancy’, Anne, Duchess of Westminster, was the fourth and last wife of the second Duke of Westminster who died in 1953.
From a wealthy family herself and the widow of the richest man in Britain, the Duchess had properties in Ireland (Bryanstown), Scotland (Lochmore) and Cheshire (Eaton Lodge). She first approached Tom Dreaper to train racehorses in the 1950s and her horses were named after mountains on the Lochmore estate - Arkle being one of them.
Arkle spent time at the Duchess’ Cheshire estate before Tom Dreaper was offered the choice to train either Arkle or another four-year-old named Brae Flame. Despite Brae Flame being the more physically attractive of the duo, Dreaper plumped for Arkle due to the fact he had previously trained members of the horse’s family, including Bright Cherry. Dreaper had also ridden Arkle’s grand-dam, Greenogue Princess, in point-to-points.
On his arrival at Dreaper’s Greenogue stables to the north of Dublin, Arkle did not appear anything out of the ordinary and was regarded as rather unattractive and gangly by stable staff.
Dreaper’s training methods were geared towards producing chasers - he had little interest in hurdle races other than as a means to bring on horses. From the early days during Dreaper’s twice-weekly schooling sessions, Arkle demonstrated he was a talented jumper.
His racecourse debut came at the now-closed Mullingar Racecourse on December 9, 1961 in a bumper. Partnered by amateur Mark Hely-Hutchinson, he started at 5/1 and finished third of the 17 runners on heavy going, some eight lengths adrift of the winner. He came fourth in a similar contest on good ground at Leopardstown on Boxing Day, again with Hely-Hutchinson in the saddle.
As Arkle had not demonstrated a huge amount of speed in his two bumper outings, Dreaper chose to start the horse’s hurdling career in a three-mile novice event at Navan on January 20, 1963. Starting at 20/1 on heavy going, he was passed over by Dreaper’s stable jockey Tom Taaffe and instead it was Liam McLoughlin who took the ride as Arkle triumphed by a length and a half.
Arkle won three more hurdle races out of a further five starts over the smaller obstacles, showing considerable promise, with Dreaper turning to chasing towards the end of 1962. Fittingly, the horse’s first start over fences was at Cheltenham on November 17, 1962, when he contested the Honeybourne Chase over two and a half miles. Ridden by Pat Taaffe, Arkle was sent off the 11/8 favourite and scored by an effortless 20 lengths. Success over two miles at Leopardstown in February, 1963 followed before Dreaper stepped Arkle up in distance for the three-mile Broardway Chase (a forerunner of today’s RSA Chase) at the Cheltenham Festival in March, 1963. The winning distance was again 20 lengths - “very easily” was the verdict of the form book.
In any normal year, Arkle’s Broadway Chase would have propelled him to the head of the ante-post market for the 1964 Cheltenham Gold Cup. However, Mill House had won the 1963 Gold Cup by 12 lengths from Dreaper’s Fortria and both the public and media asserted that the strapping Fulke Walwyn-trained gelding would win the feature race for years to come.
Arkle and Mill House first met in the 1963 Hennessy Gold Cup at Newbury on a foggy November day. Mill House, saddled with 12 stone, was set to concede five pounds (5lb) to Arkle, who carried 11st 9lb. Three fences from home, Mill House led the way, with Arkle travelling well in third. A blunder from Arkle at that open ditch handed the initiative to Mill House, although some observers reported that Arkle’s mishap was more of an unfortunate slip. Given the foggy conditions and black and white film coverage, it was difficult to see what actually happened. In any event, Mill House stormed to an eight-length victory over Happy Spring with Arkle three quarters of a length back in third.
In the minds of many, the Hennessy clearly proved Mill House to be superior, although Arkle’s supporters were adamant the Irish horse would still prove better. If Arkle could not beat Mill House when receiving weight, what chance did he stand at level weights in the Cheltenham Gold Cup of 1964? In the run-up to The Festival, Arkle won three handicap chases under 12st without any trouble in Ireland, while Mill House landed the King George VI Chase at Kempton Park.
The scene was set for the much-anticipated re-match at Cheltenham on March 7, 1964 on good ground, with the Cheltenham Gold Cup, run over an extended three and a quarter miles, moved from its usual Thursday slot to a Saturday to give as many people as possible the chance of either being at the course or watching on television.
Mill House went off the 8/13 favourite with Arkle at 7/4. Two other runners lined up, the 1960 winner Pas Seul and Great Yorkshire Chase scorer King’s Nephew. Mill House made the running, with Arkle pulling hard in second. Coming down the hill for the final time, Arkle moved up menacingly and soon after the second last, burst into the lead into a matter of strides and galloped resolutely to line. He beat Mill House in stunning fashion, with five lengths the official verdict in a new course record time. The BBC commentator perfectly summarised the result: “This is the champion. This is the best we’ve seen for a long time.”
Arkle’s first Cheltenham Gold Cup victory was followed just 23 days later by an thrilling Irish Grand National success under 12 stone, when he conceded at least two stone to all his rivals, including the crack racemare Flying Wild.
The 1964/65 season saw Arkle reach new heights. He won a three-runner Gowran Park handicap chase and then made up for the Hennessy Gold Cup disappointment of 1963 by winning the 1964 edition under 12st 7lb by 10 lengths on December 5, with Mill House (by then in receipt of 3lb) a well-beaten fourth.
Dropped back two miles and five furlongs at Cheltenham a week later, he met a reverse, finishing a close third under a massive weight in the Massey-Ferguson Gold Cup Handicap, with Flying Wild, who received 28lb, taking the glory.
Arkle got back to winning ways in a Leopardstown handicap in late February. In the 1965 Gold Cup, the star chaser once again faced Mill House and this time made all the running for an effortless 20-length triumph over his rival - perhaps best performance of his illustrious career. The season was rounded off by success in one of Britain’s most competitive handicaps, the Whitbread Gold Cup at Sandown Park, when he conceded at least two and a half stone to all rivals and beat Brasher five lengths.
After opening the 1965/66 season by breaking the three-mile track record when 20 lengths superior to Rondetto, with Mill House ( who received 16lb) third, in the Gallaher Gold Cup at Sandown Park, Arkle took a second Hennessy Gold Cup, again under 12st 7lb, by 15 lengths from Freddie and Brasher at a starting price of 30/100. That Christmas he made his first visit to Kempton Park for the King George VI Chase and had little difficulty in overcoming Dormant by a distance.
In the 1966 Cheltenham Gold Cup, Arkle made un uncharacteristic blunder at the 11th fence but was still 30 lengths superior to Dormant as he racked up the hat-trick at odds of 1/10.
Still only nine years old, how long would Arkle’s reign continue? He attempted to win a third Hennessy Gold Cup in November, 1966, on his first start of the season but gamely had to settle for a half-length second behind Stalbridge Colonist, who was in receipt of a massive 35lb and went on to finish a close second in the 1967 Cheltenham Gold Cup.
Next time out it was business as usual, when Arkle headed to Ascot for the SGB Handicap Chase on December 14. He won by 15 lengths, with all other runners in receipt of at least 32lb.
Just 13 days after his Ascot victory, Arkle’s career was over. When attempting to win his second King George VI Chase, he sustained a fracture to his off-fore pedal bone in the closing stages and finished the race very lame, a length behind old opponent Dormant.
It was initially hoped that after a period of recuperation Arkle might make a comeback, but it was not to be, with Duchess announcing the great horse’s retirement on October 8, 1968, with total win prize money of £75,107.
He was humanely put down on May 31, 1970, as a result of extreme stiffness and lesions on both hind feet, which had developed independently of his career-ending injury.
Arkle’s skeleton is on display at the Irish National Stud and he is commemorated at Cheltenham Racecourse by a statue, a bar and the championship race for two-mile novice chasers, the Arkle Challenge Trophy Chase at The Festival in March.
Anne, Duchess of Westminster, saw her colours carried to victory again in the Cheltenham Gold Cup by Ten Up, trained by Tom Dreaper’s son, Jim, in 1975. Having never wanted to risk Arkle in the Grand National, the owner enjoyed victory in the Aintree spectacular with the enigmatic Last Suspect in 1985. She died in 2003, aged 88, with Tom Dreaper having passed away aged 76 in 1975, just a few weeks after Ten Up’s win.
Pat Taaffe, who rode Arkle 28 times (including all his chases and winning on 24 occasions), became a trainer and saddled the highly-talented if wayward Captain Christy to win the 1974 Cheltenham Gold Cup. He died aged 62 in 1992. His son Tom kept the Taaffe legacy going by training the 2005 Gold Cup hero, Kicking King.
Form figures: 341104-1111111-11311111-113111-11111-212
Born: April 19, 1957, Ballymacoll Stud, Dunboyne, Co Meath, Ireland. His sire was Archive and his dam Bright Cherry.
Breeder: Mary Baker.
Sold: Goff’s Annual August Sales - Ballsbridge, August 4, 1960.
Arkle, at the time un-named, was lot 148 and had a reserve of 500 guineas. He was sold to Tom Dreaper for 1,150 guineas on behalf of Anne, Duchess of Westminster. Her purchase was subsequently named Arkle, the name of a mountain on the Duchess’ estate in Sutherland, Scotland.
Race record: Starts: 35; 1st: 27; 2nd: 2; 3rd: 3; 4th: 2; Unp: 1. His career runs included 26 chases (22 wins), six hurdle races (four wins), two bumpers and one Flat race (one win).
Total career earnings: £78,464 5s 6d (around £1.25 million today).
Owner: Anne, Duchess of Westminster (b1915 - d2003).
Trainer: Tom Dreaper (b1898-d1975).
Jockey: Arkle was ridden predominantly by Pat Taaffe (b1930-d1992). Taaffe partnered Arkle 28 times, including on all the horse’s 26 chase outings, and was successful on 24 occasions The other jockeys who rode Arkle were Mr Mark Hely-Hutchinson (twice), Liam McLoughlin (three times - one win), Paddy Woods (once - one win) and T P Burns (once - one win).
First race: Lough Ennel Maiden Plate (a bumper - National Hunt Flat race), Mullingar, Ireland, December 9, 1961. Started 5/1 and finished third under Mark Hely-Hutchinson.
First win: Bective Novice Hurdle, Navan, January 20, 1962. Started at 20/1 and ridden by Liam McLoughlin.
First outing and win in Britain: Honeybourne Chase, Cheltenham, November 17, 1962. Started the 11/8 favourite and won by 20 lengths under Pat Taaffe.
Cheltenham Festival wins (four - Pat Taaffe rode on each occasion):
March 12, 1963 - Broadway Novices’ Chase (RSA Chase) 4/9 Fav, won by 20 lengths.
March 7, 1964 - Cheltenham Gold Cup 7/4 2nd Fav, won by five lengths.
March 11, 1965 - Cheltenham Gold Cup 30/100 Fav, won by 20 lengths.
March 17, 1966 - Cheltenham Gold Cup 1/10 Fav, won by 30 lengths.
Cheltenham: Arkle ran six times at Cheltenham, with his only defeat at the Home of Jump Racing coming on December 12, 1964 in the Massey-Ferguson Gold Cup over 2m 5f. With top-weight of 12st 10lb, the 8/11 favourite finished a close third, beaten a length and a short-head by Flying Wild (10st 6lb) and Buona Notte (10st 12lb) in this valuable handicap chase.
Other major victories (all ridden by Pat Taaffe):
Power Gold Cup, Fairyhouse (1963).
Hennessy Gold Cup, Newbury (1964, 1965).
Thyestes Chase, Gowran Park (1964).
Irish Grand National, Fairyhouse (1964).
Leopardstown Chase, Leopardstown (1965, 1966).
Whitbread Gold Cup, Sandown Park (1965).
Gallagher Gold Cup, Sandown Park (1965).
King George VI Chase, Kempton Park (1965).
SGB Chase, Ascot (1966).
Betting: Started at odds-on in 22 of his 26 chases. His shortest-ever starting price was 1/10 in the 1966 Cheltenham Gold Cup.
Biggest weight carried to victory: The biggest weight Arkle carried to victory was 12st 11lb in the Milltown Chase at Leopardstown in February, 1963.
Longest winning distance: Distance - 1965 King George VI Chase, Kempton Park
Timeform: Arkle is rated the best chaser of all-time by Timeform, with a rating of 212. His one-time stable companion Flyingbolt is next on 210. Current superstar Sprinter Sacre is currently third on 192, with Arkle’s old rival Mill House and Kauto Star both achieving 191.
Final Race: King George VI Chase, Kempton Park, December 27, 1966. Second to Dormant, finished lame.
Died: May 31, 1970, Bryanstown, County Kildare. Was humanely put down as a result of extreme stiffness and lesions in both hind feet. Originally buried at Bryanstown, his remains were exhumed in 1976 and his skeleton was put on display at the Irish National Stud.
Commemoration at Cheltenham:
The bronze statue of Arkle created by local artist Doris Lindner was unveiled at Cheltenham by the Duchess of Westminster in 1972. It currently stands above the parade ring.
The Hall of Fame - updated in March 2014 - The far end wall can be viewed by Club and Tattersalls ticket holders on a raceday.
Solid Silver Commemorative coin, limited to 50 and launched at The Festival in 2014, available to buy through the Cheltenham Collection shop or in person at reception.
The Arkle Poster - available to purchase at The Festival from the Cheltenham Collection Shop
The Cotswold Chase, the championship event for two-mile novice chasers, was re-named the Arkle Trophy in 1969.
The Arkle Bar in the Club Enclosure is the most famous racecourse bar in Britain.