Thursday, 7 August 2014

Arkle: The Stuff of Which Legends are Made

For younger readers, or those unfamiliar with the history of National Hunt, Arkle is arguably the best steeplechaser of all time. I say arguably because his Timeform rating of 212, which has become the yardstick for every other steeplechaser since the mid-1960s, was achieved at a time when Timeform ratings for National Hunt horses were in their infancy and is considered, by some, an anomaly.

To put things in perspective, his stable companion Flyingbolt achieved a Timeform rating of 210 and the pair is fully 20lb ahead of their nearest rival in the all-time list. Now, given that hundreds of thousands of steeplechasers have raced in the last 50 years, it’s effectively impossible, statistically, the best two, ever, came from the same yard at the same time. The most exciting steeplechaser of recent times, Sprinter Sacre, is in third place with Timeform rating of 192p but, even if he can be coaxed back to his best form, he still has a long way to go to be mentioned in the same breath as Arkle.

The yard in question was that of County Dublin trainer Tom Dreaper and, whether or not you choose to believe the Timeform figures, Arkle was undoubtedly an exceptional steeplechaser who fully deserves his place in the history of the Cheltenham Festival. Owned by Anne, Duchess of Westminster, and named after a Scottish mountain, Arkle won what is now the RSA Chase on his first appearance at the Festival in 1962, but is principally remembered for a hat-trick of wins in the Cheltenham Gold Cup in 1964, 1965 and 1996.

On the first occasion, in 1964, he took revenge on Mill House, who had beaten him, on 5lb worse terms, in the Hennessy Gold Cup the previous November, winning by 5 lengths. He beat the same horse by 20 lengths in the 1965 Cheltenham Gold Cup and in the 1966 renewal, in the absence of his old rival, beat Dormant by 30 lengths. His achievements are commemorated by the Arkle Challenge Trophy, a two-mile novices’ chase run on the opening day of the Cheltenham Festival, and a half-size bronze statue at Prestbury Park. His skeleton holds pride of place in the museum of the Irish National Stud in County Kildare.

Despite originally be bought for 1,150 guineas, Arkle won 22 of his 26 steeplechases, including the King George VI Chase, the Hennessy Gold Cup (twice), the Irish Grand National and, of course, the Cheltenham Gold Cup three times. Known in racing circles simply as ‘Himself’, a fractured pedal bone forced Arkle into retirement in 1968 and he was put down three years later after suffering from chronic arthritis.

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