Oct 17, 2016

The great Arkle is a legend among legends. Here he is jumping a fence (left), and defeating Millhouse (right).
The great Arkle is a legend among legends. Here he is jumping a fence (left), and defeating Millhouse (right).

THE greatest racehorse of all time? A one-word name? Two syllables? Of course. He‟s ARKLE.

This would be the answer of tens of thousands of racing fans in Ireland, UK and around the world and is testament to the perennial sporting popularity of steeplechasing and hurdling.

The safe route is to say that you can‟t compare flat and jumping horses. “Greatest steeplechaser” as applied to ARKLE is undisputed, at least post war and arguably ever. Greater than FRANKEL? In popularity over time, yes.

Racing‟s fans are now anticipating the jumping season. Champions Day at Ascot is done. The Champion Flat Jockey is crowned. Yes, there is winter flat racing on artificials, but most flat horses are being put away now for their winter break, to return to training in early January for March/April turf onwards.

Yes, there has also been summer jumping. But neither is of national interest.

Few horses on the flat evoke such emotion as the best steeplechasers.

DESERT ORCHID is described in Wikipedia as “a national icon and beautiful grey loved by children”. “Dessiemania” was known throughout the nation to apply to a thrilling chaser who won four King George VI Chases, as well as a Cheltenham Gold Cup.

Dessie‟s lass Janice Coyle was almost as well known as the horse. The roar of the King George crowd on Boxing Day as they come over the second last at Kempton near London Heathrow is one of the great events in sport. For Dessie, the roar made emotional wrecks out of many of the huge Christmas throng.

Desert Orchid.
Desert Orchid.

RED RUM won three Grand Nationals and was second in two more. His five years of national adulation continued in retirement and beyond with many people knowing exactly where little “Rummy” is buried.

Famous steeplechasers make public appearances in retirement: opening a new shopping complex; switching on Christmas lights; cantering in front of adoring crowds on big race days.

More recently KAUTO STAR took on the “people‟s favourite” mantle but without the cult status of Arkle, Rummy and Dessie. The list goes on. GOLDEN MILLER, DAWN RUN, DENMAN, L‟ESCARGOT…

ARKLE surpasses all. If Timeform is the arbiter, just as Frankel (147) out-rated Sea-Bird (145), so did the highest rated steeplechaser of all time (212) out-rate his brilliant stable companion FLYINGBOLT (210). Top steeplechasers usually rate around 180. Those two were freaks of nature.

ARKLE “was Ireland”. The 1960s nation was a shadow of the present Celtic Tiger, full of difficulty and self-doubt but of deep-seated pride. ARKLE, owned by Irish-born UK peeress Anne, Duchess of Westminster, was trained by Tom Dreaper and was Irish Pride writ large.

Known throughout the Emerald Isle as “Himself”, the horse was also adopted as a hero by his British fans. Even if he did signal his own greatness by beating the great English chaser MILL HOUSE who was never the same again but lives on in admiration for a great athlete.

When ARKLE reversed 1963 form with MILL HOUSE at Cheltenham, eyes in UK and Ireland were out on stalks, so glorious was his jumping, so majestic was his victory over another great horse.

ARKLE‟s 27 wins, all under Pat Taafe, included three Cheltenham Gold Cups, plus a King George, two Hennessys and an Irish National with many
other stirring victories.

He ruined the handicap system. There would be two handicaps: one with ARKLE running and one without.

In many of his great victories, he carried up something like 2½ stone more than the next in the weights. That means 16 kg more than all of them, over a distance of 3 miles or more (5 km).

Perhaps above all, the thrill for people was in his jumping at speed. Where Dessie would attack fences making every one a thrill, and butcher the fields behind him, ARKLE cruised until it was time “to go”, treating big fences with imperious disdain, soaring high and fast. He would walk around parade rings, head high, ears pricked, looking back at the crowds as if nodding to them regally.

From all over the world, ARKLE would receive actual fan mail by the sack full, often addressed to “Arkle, Ireland” or even “Himself”. The Irish Post Office knew exactly where to deliver it. There was no internet. ARKLE would have exploded Twitter.\

Stars are needed in sport. Why was POCKET POWER so popular and known beyond racing? Because he came back again and again.Crowds flock to see the stars in the flesh, not on TV. BLACK CAVIAR and FRANKEL did that in their different ways. The great flat stayers like YEATS and PERSIAN PUNCH did that. Every one of those chasers mentioned above and many more did and do exactly that.

So here’s to the jumping season of wrap up warm in your favourite coat, scarf and gloves, have a hot whisky and enjoy the friendly crowds, the utterly magnificent athletes and their riders, perhaps the bravest of sports people. Big festivals and small. Like Taunton, Fontwell and Market Rasen, nestled in beautiful winter countryside, where the local community has been waiting for weeks for each race day and you can‟t get within a mile of the full car parks.

By the way, knock the F and the N out of FRANKEL and you have an anagram of ARKLE. – tt

Red Rum, who lived until 30, is buried at the Aintree winning post. Here is his late trainer, Ginger McCain, paying tribute.
Red Rum, who lived until 30, is buried at the Aintree winning post. Here is his late trainer, Ginger McCain, paying tribute.