Arkle Fifty Years On: Five races that helped make a legend

Himself at his peerless best from Cheltenham to Fairyhouse, Newbury to Sandown Park

Friday, May 29, 2020
Arkle 50 Years On

Arkle, pictured in the winners' enclosure at Cheltenham, after winning the first of three Gold Cups at the Festival for trainer Tom Dreaper and jockey Pat Taafe

Sunday May 31st marks 50 years since the passing of Arkle - a horse who redefined his sport and was so good there was one rule when he raced and another when he didn’t, writes James Toney.

He won 22 of his 26 steeplechases between November 1962 and December 1966, when his career came to a headline-grabbing halt with a broken hoof in the King George VI Chase at Kempton Park. 

His peerless record includes the Cheltenham Gold Cups of 1964, 1965 and 1966, while he won the Hennessy Gold Cup at Newbury twice plus the Whitbread Gold Cup, King George VI Chase and Irish Grand National.

Here we relive his five greatest races. 

Gallagher Gold Cup, Sandown, 1965

READ: Arkle 50 Years On: Dreaper family remember 'the greatest horse' 

For those who chronicled his career, Arkle’s greatest performance was in the 1965 Gallagher Gold Cup, a handicap chase run at Sandown Park.

He was up against old rival Mill House, a horse who had lowered Arkle’s colours once in their previous four meetings and was carrying 16lb less weight.

A huge crowd packed the course on a crisp autumnal day and witnessed an absolute classic. Mill House took the lead and the pair went jump for jump, repeatedly swapping the advantage.

The pretender took what appeared to be a decisive lead on the turn for home, Arkle’s weight disadvantage seeming to take its toll. 

But then jockey Pat Taaffe pressed the accelerator and the champion swept into the lead in the space of five strides, Sir Peter O'Sullevan almost expressing disbelief in his iconic commentary.

“That race was a stroll in the park,” he said breathlessly, after an imperious 20 length victory that broke the course record by 17 seconds.

Gold Cup, Cheltenham, 1964

Saturday March 7, 1964 saw just four horses go to the post in the Cheltenham Gold Cup - 22 fences later only one legend remained.

Mill House looked every bit the odds-on favourite and, at the halfway stage, the commentator remarked 'Pat Taaffe is not having a very happy ride on Arkle to this point'.

A few minutes later and he'd won by five lengths in a time that broke the course record by four seconds. 

Gold Cup, Cheltenham, 1966

After defending his Gold Cup in 1965, Arkle arrived at Prestbury Park under the burden of huge expectation from the Irish public - seeking to join another national icon, Cottage Rake, as a three-time winner.

Perhaps his 1/10 price tells the story and while this race didn't have the romance of that first epic tussle with Mill House, it was not without drama.

Coming to the 11th fence, jockey Taafe was lucky not be sent flying as Arkle badly blundered.

“He is emphatically the best. And more than this he looks the best. He even looks as if he knew he was best,” reported the Irish Times.

Irish Grand National, Fairyhouse, 1964

Having won his first Gold Cup at Cheltenham a few weeks earlier, Arkle returned to Fairyhouse for a hero’s welcome - and then produced a stunning encore.

Carrying 12st and giving away two stone or more to his six rivals, he held off the determined challenge of Height O' Fashion to claim trainer Tom Dreaper’s fifth consecutive victory in the showpiece. 

Hennessy Gold Cup, Newbury, 1965

Despite carrying a massive 32lb weight on his back, Arkle demolished the field to win this race for the second time.

This was a flawless round of jumping, as ears pricked as he got a tremendous reception from the crowd - though his 1/8 starting price was not likely to make any of them rich. 

However, no one got very rich backing Arkle, though he more than enriched their sporting passions.

He is emphatically the best. And more than this he looks the best. He even looks as if he knew he was best.
Irish Times editorial after Arkle's 1966 Cheltenham Gold Cup triumph 

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