The 1966 Cheltenham Gold Cup was unique. It was not so much a horserace as a public Mass to worship Arkle, complete with a collective mid-service gasp when he galloped slap into the fence in front of the stands.
Don’t think that half a century has led to exaggeration. As Arkle circled the paddock in his previous race at Leopardstown men had raised their hats, women curtsied and a small boy said “Hellooo” every time he passed. That morning’s Irish Times had run a symphony of praise in its leader column which even compared him to – of all people – General de Gaulle.
So by the time his four outclassed Cheltenham opponents lined up at 4.05 pm on Thursday 17th March for the then princely first prize of £7,674 10s(50p), Arkle was way beyond a mere racehorse adding to an ever extending string of success. He was the subject of a veneration that had begun exactly two years earlier when he had beaten Mill House in the most famous of all Gold Cups and turned Irish belief into adoration.
In 11 races since that day, his only defeat had been when carrying no less than 12 stone 10lbs in the December 1964 Massey Ferguson Gold Cup and failing by a shrinking length to haul in two good horses, Flying Wild and Buona Notte to whom he was conceding 32lbs and 26lbs respectively. It wouldn’t even be legal nowadays.
Between the 1964 and 1966 Festivals Arkle had won the Irish National, the Whitbread Gold Cup, the King George VI Chase, two Hennessy Gold Cups at Newbury carrying 12.7 and, of course, the previous year’s Gold Cup at Cheltenham with a 20 length humiliation of old rival Mill House. But there was much, much more to Arkle’s fame than his excellence on the track. Over those two years Arkle had become more popular than any horse before or since.
Yes, more popular than Red Rum, Mill Reef, Desert Orchid, Best Mate, Kauto Star, Frankel, or if you want to riff it, more than Bucephalus, Black Bess or Tonto (That’s enough horses. Ed). To be serious, the nearest thing in recent times would have been the fan-worship surrounding the Australian sprinter Black Caviar as she travelled north to compete and win at Royal Ascot. But even that could never match the perfect mix that constituted the Arkle phenomenon.
As with all perfection the more you examined the better it looked. There was the performance, there were the people around him, there was his own personality and then there was a whole nation not just in thrall but consciously in his debt. Fascinating though Arkle’s entourage was, none of them from jockey Pat Taaffe to pipe smoking trainer Tom Dreaper, to gravel voiced owner Anne, Duchess of Westminster to head lad Paddy Murray who mixed two pints of Guinness into the great horse’s daily feed, ever aspired to do anything but put their wonder first.
This led to a refreshing sense of authenticity and selflessness in an often false and greedy world. Back in 1950 Pat Taaffe had won on Arkle’s dam Bright Cherry, five times he had been Irish Champion jockey and on Quare Times in 1955 had won Vincent O’Brien a third consecutive Grand National. But Pat did not have a boastful bone in his body, a characteristic shared by the contrasting characters around him. Largest of these in every sense was Anne, always known as Nancy, Duchess of Westminster whose friendliness and obvious devotion to Arkle instantly dispelled any egalitarian prejudice at her good fortune in having the vast estates of the late husband she had married in 1947 when he was the richest man in England as well as being 36 years his junior.
Nancy may have had a voice like Louis Armstrong but she had been a horsewoman from childhood days in County Cork and could not only get Arkle to canter across a field to her call but would ride him herself during his summer holidays at her Irish base at Bryanstown in County Kildare. When Nancy talked of “her boy” it was only affection, never affectation.
Arkle’s lad Johnny Lumley, and Paddy Murray’s two senior helpers and stable second jockeys, Paddy Woods and Liam McCloughlin, were all as genial and genuine as you could wish to meet which was not surprising since they all worked for the self-effacing genius that was Tom Dreaper.
Tom’s record shows that he first won the Gold Cup in 1946, that he won ten Irish Grand Nationals, five equivalent of the Arkle Chase, six Champion Chases and had 26 successes overall at what was then a much limited three-day Festival. Yet his yard, which never housed more than 30 inmates, was always also a working cattle farm and the horses, which I can confirm from an idyllic summer riding there in 1961, rarely went out for more than 45 minutes.
Jealousy may be racing’s besetting sin but it never touched Tom Dreaper. Not even in 1966 when he won the opening race of the Festival and then over the first two days saddled Flyingbolt to produce a pair of performances unmatched even by Arkle. On the Tuesday this tall, gangly, white-faced chestnut hacked up in the Champion Chase and 24 hours later would have won the Champion Hurdle but for a bad mistake four out and a “give the outside to no one” ride that Pat Taafe would never class in his top 500. The photos show how wonderfully graceful Pat was over a fence but riding a finish was never his specialty and the 1966 Champion Hurdle video of him up against super neat Johnny Haine is more sack of spuds than stylish jockey.
For Paul Nicholls to have great Gold Cup winners Kauto Star and Denman competing against each other while stabled in adjoining boxes will always remain one of the great achievements of this or any other era. But, apart from Paul having five times as many horses to play with, what happened with Flyingbolt and Arkle in 1966 was in many ways even more remarkable.
Through injury and illness, they were never destined to meet but on the day when Arkle would start 1-10 for the Gold Cup and was so far ahead of his contemporaries that handicaps had to be framed with and without him, his own stable companion could be weighted only two or three pounds behind him. Today’s media had a good enough run with Kauto Star/Denman. The mind boggles at what they might have made of Arkle/Flyingbolt.
For they were not only contrasting physiques they were very different characters. Although Arkle had been a scrawny, greyhoundy thing in his youth, he had matured into a magnificent looking bay champion with a regal disposition to match. Flyingbolt was an altogether meaner man. “A small child could walk into Arkle’s box in absolute safety,” wrote Pat Taafe in his autobiography. “No child or man would ever willingly step into Flyingbolt’s…… at least, not twice. He would kick the eye out of your head.”
Of course by 1966 we had all long surrendered to the unlikelihood of the whole fairytale and best of all was the sense of the character of the horse himself. It was one thing to hear the story of young Valerie Dreaper vainly scrabbling around in Arkle’s box for a missing tennis ball only to feel a nudge in the back and see the famous head with the ball in its teeth before dropping it neatly outside for her to continue, quite another to see him for yourself.
By 1966 I was already four years into what we will laughingly describe as “my riding career.” Indeed, I was standing at Cheltenham’s last fence for Arkle’s first run over fences in November1962 and the astonishment of how he left a decent field for dead on the run-in lives with me still. But since then he had grown into greatness. He had annihilated all his rivals but he had done much more than that. He had added majesty to his demeanor.
There has never been anything like it. In the autumn of 1965 the words “ARKLE FOR PRESIDENT” were scrawled in large letters on a Dublin wall and if you had seen him walking round the paddock at Sandown before the Gallaher Gold Cup on 6th of November you would think that someone had told him. A month earlier Sea Bird had routed the Arc de Triomphe in a style that to my eyes remains even more amazing than Frankel’s spectacular 2,000 Guineas fifty-six years later. But, as Sean Magee so memorably put it in his masterly book “The Life and Legacy of Himself”, “if Sea Bird was a meteor, Arkle was the North Star.” And that star never shone brighter than on that bright autumn day at Sandown.
By now we just wanted to get a look at his presence. People pressed in to the paddock rails to get a sight of him and he would look back. No kidding, the unique thing about Arkle was how he would scan the crowd, his neck held high and his long brown ears cocked forward as he gazed ahead and beside him. Those ears became iconic because often they were the only things you could see above the scrum. Other great horses, most particularly Red Rum, became very savvy with all the media interest. But no horse has ever held the crowd’s attention by just walking round the paddock. No horse ever will.
That day was further proof of how well earned was that attention. The crowd applauded Arkle on the way to the start. He had 12 stone 7lbs to carry on this first run of the season, set to concede 16 lbs to a rejuvenated and twice raced Mill House. But he brushed him aside off the final turn and the way Arkle finished, taking 17 seconds off the track record led John Oaksey to conclude, “I seriously doubt whether the 300 yards of the Sandown run-in has ever been covered faster – and certainly no winner ever came home, on this or any other course, to a greater, more rapturous welcome.”
After that Arkle was a 15 length winner of the Hennessy Gold Cup at Newbury giving more than two stone to Freddie, his nearest pursuer who had himself carried 11.7 to a gallant second in the Grand National that April. Next time out Arkle distanced Dormant in a King George marred by the fatal fall of Dunkirk the two-mile champion, and his clean sweep before Cheltenham was completed when he gave three stone in heavy ground to the talented Height of Fashion at Leopardstown.
That day’s Irish Times leader was no tongue in cheek frippery. It reflected the extra dimension that Arkle embodied in an era, long before dreams of the Celtic tiger, when Ireland yearned for progress. “The horse is very close to the heart of the nation,” the leader ran.” He has again and again confirmed his supremacy over all rivals in Britain. Every time he appears on an English racecourse he raises the morale at home. He is so emphatically the best. He even looks as if he knows he is the best. Not with the air of swagger and self-glory which characterizes, say Mr Cassius Clay; but with the dignity, the look of supreme self-assurance that marks President De Gaulle.”
Strange sounding human comparisons aside (Muhammad Ali officially changed his name from Cassius Clay in 1964 but its usage was still not current over here in 1966), it was this extra sense of nationhood that Arkle carried with him to the Gold Cup on what was St Patrick’s Day. The Lord Mayor of Dublin had sent over a ton of shamrock and Johnny Lumley had knotted one into Arkle’s browband. Irishmen still swear it was the salvation for what followed.
It was a day when other concerns from Vietnam to Beatlemania to the current General Election campaign should drop away. With just five runners it was billed as a champion’s parade and most of it was precisely that. Dormant ridden by Michael Scudamore led to the eighth then Arkle swept ahead and proceeded majestically back towards the stands on the first circuit with head so high and his ears so pricked that he completely ignored the fence in front of the stands and induced in Peter O’Sullevan the sort of “ohhhhhhhhhhhhh” normally reserved for Argentinian soccer commentators.
Astonishingly the fence merely parted in a shower of birch and Arkle continued serenely on to canter home 30 lengths clear of Dormant and return to the unsaddling enclosure to universal delight. History relates that it was to be his last visit to Cheltenham but those of us lucky enough to see his Gold Cups remain sure that we will never see his like again.
“I knew he wouldn’t fall,” said Pat Taafe afterwards, “Arkle can always find a fifth leg.” He was entitled to his professional opinion but it didn’t satisfy one shamrock laden wag by the unsaddling enclosure. “Sure, hadn’t St Patrick have him well backed,” shouted Arkle’s well-oiled fellow countryman as the Duchess patted her horse’s neck and said “I nearly died. You silly old thing. You silly, silly old thing.”
A fortnight earlier John Lennon had told an Evening Standard interviewer that the Beatles “were more popular than Jesus now.” Not at Cheltenham they weren’t. Out there it was only the Almighty and Arkle, the horse they called “Himself”.