29 February 2004
Best Mate is a special chaser but he still remains a distant second behind the three-times Gold Cup winner
Best Mate is a fantastic horse. He is the best balanced steeplechaser I have seen and his record of 12 wins and four seconds shows that he has been a star throughout his life. But Arkle, with a steeple-chasing record of 22 wins, two seconds and two thirds? Well, he was a freak.
Forty years since Arkle’s first Gold Cup, that unforgettable defeat of the 1963 winner Mill House, Best Mate comes to Cheltenham trying to become the first horse since Arkle to win the Gold Cup three times running. A week ago the Racing Post completed the biggest reader poll to find the most popular racehorse of all time. Arkle was first, Best Mate 14th.
Arkle’s are big shoes to fill.
I remember exactly where I was when I first saw him: standing by the last fence at Cheltenham for the Honeybourne Novices’ Chase on Saturday Nov 17, 1962, Arkle’s first race over fences. I was a 19-year-old amateur rider already seriously affected by the racing bug and had no defence against the image in front of me. We had been warned the Irish thought this lean, greyhoundy, long-eared thing was a bit special, but what happened at the finish just took the breath away. There were decent horses against him, but Arkle just skipped the fence and sprinted 20 lengths clear as if he was another species altogether. Perhaps he was.
It was all the more remarkable because when Arkle had first appeared at Tom Dreaper’s stables two seasons earlier he had not been that impressive. “His action was so terrible behind,” recorded Pat Taaffe in Ivor Herbert’s excellent Arkle biography, “that we thought he would be a slow coach – a slob.” Compare that with Best Mate as a four-year-old, already so perfect that Terry Biddlecombe was instantly smitten on that first point-to-point day in Co Cork in February 1999. Best Mate ended his opening campaign running an unlucky second in the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival, Arkle finished off running fourth in a moderate handicap at Fairyhouse with 10st 5lb. Best Mate was better than Arkle – over hurdles.
Over fences, Arkle was something else. As his body matured into its frame, he developed first an athleticism, and then a presence that I have never seen before or since. By the time he came back to Cheltenham for the equivalent of the Sun Alliance Chase at the Festival, he was kicking all other novices out of the way. But when he returned for the Gold Cup next season, it seemed he might have found his match in the massive 1963 Gold Cup winner Mill House, who had given him 5lb and a beating in the Hennessy in November.
What happened on that cold, clear March day in 1964 became one of the defining moments in jumping history. You have to remember that we were hailing Mill House as the greatest English-trained chaser since the war, a giant of a horse whose spring-heeled leaps used to bring gasps from the crowd as if they were watching hammer blows from a heavyweight. The Irish were insisting that Arkle had slipped at Newbury but none of us believed them. Then as they turned for home and we waited for Willie Robinson on Mill House to put the upstart in his place, we saw the unthinkable, a horse not just as good as Mill House, but quite emphatically, brutally his superior.
I was a young jockey by then, a 21-year-old undergraduate down from Oxford getting ready to ride in the Cathcart two races after the Gold Cup. In the weighing room we couldn’t believe what our eyes had told us. I remember poor Willie Robinson sitting on the bench just as shattered as if he had been taken out by the young Cassius Clay, who had turned over Sonny Liston a month earlier. Willie had thought Mill House unbeatable. He was wrong.
There was a sense of awe around the place which never left us whenever Arkle ran. For he didn’t just win, he used to destroy his opponents or attempt seemingly impossible tasks in handicaps. In truth, his subsequent Gold Cups were little more than exhibition rounds, the most memorable moment when he completely ignored the fence in front of the stands on the first circuit in 1966. It was what Arkle did in handicaps conceding two, sometimes nearly three stone which has seared itself in the memory.
Best Mate, since his first Gold Cup, has run in just five races, all level weights or conditions events. At this stage Arkle had run 11 times after his Gold Cup, six of them in handicaps, winning the Irish Grand National with 12st two Hennessys, a Whitbread and the Gallaher Gold Cup at Ascot with 12st 7lb and, most remarkably of all, finishing a close third in the Massey-Ferguson at Cheltenham in December 1964 with 12st 10lb, giving 32lb to the winner, Flying Wild, and 26lb to the equally talented second, Buona Notte. I can see Arkle now, still fighting back, refusing to be anchored by the extra lead. He couldn’t do it but he nearly did.
By then Arkle had developed the most astonishing presence about him. He used to walk round the paddock with his neck very upright and those astonishing long ears scanning the crowd, the emperor of all he surveyed. On the track he was utterly dominant, sometimes just carting Taaffe to the front, often throwing extravagant leaps just for the hell of it, once or twice landing on the fence rather than over it. We couldn’t take our eyes off him. We used to race back to see him unsaddle. We felt we were treasuring something beyond compare. We were right.
Completely unfair to start using any of this to denigrate Best Mate. The current champion is a wonder of our times; a brilliantly handled, immensely attractive, beau ideal of the jumping horse. But he is not Arkle. How could he be?