Racing commentator, Sir Peter O'Sullevan called him 'a freak of nature'. Fan mail to him was addressed, 'Himself, Ireland'.
In March 2014 it will be 50 years since Arkle won his first Cheltenham Gold Cup and this issue features excerpt from Anne Holland's new biography, which tells his story and of the people around the legendary steeplechaser who enabled him to produce his brilliant best.
Racing Against Arkle (From Chapter 8: ENGLAND v IRELAND, MILL HOUSE v ARKLE 1963-64)
Arkle had run six times in his first season, seven in his second and now, 1963-4, was to be the busiest of his career with eight. His reputation was red hot and the whole of Ireland was on fire about him. England was not. They had their own hero, Mill House, the ‘Big Horse’ who as a six-year-old had stormed to Cheltenham Gold Cup glory while Arkle was cruising to a mere novice win at the Festival.
The build up on both sides of the water that autumn was intense. Arkle had become what in today’s parlance is called a ‘Saturday’ horse. Television sets were still few and far between in Ireland and many fans, if they could not get to the track, would flock to whatever friends, relations or pubs had this large, new-fangled, somewhat ‘snowy’ black and white machine taking up a chunk of the sitting room.
At the time Michael Hourigan, now one of Ireland’s leading trainers was an apprentice jockey serving his time with Charlie Weld (father of Dermot) at Rosewell House on the Curragh. It was a strict life but a fair one and the lads found Mrs Gita Weld a perfect mother figure. When Arkle was running the lads were allowed into the house to watch him on the television.
‘I remember the crowds following him in, people were able to get a lot closer to the horses then,’ says Michael Hourigan.
Schoolboy Kevin Colman (now manager of Bellewstown and Laytown races) went to some lengths to reach a television.
‘I got the impression that Arkle ran every Saturday – he wasn’t wrapped in cotton wool. A family friend, Jim Kelly, ran the local athletics club and worked for the Greenshield stamp people including half day Saturdays. My sister Carmel and I were about twelve and fourteen and we used to go in to Dublin with him; his mother lived in Julianstown and on the way back we would watch Arkle on their black and white telly; television was a great novelty then.’
Arkle began his third season by running in a Flat race, against pukka Flat racehorses (unlike his two initial Bumpers which are specifically for NH horses in the making.) Although Arkle had gone through the previous season unbeaten (two hurdles and five chases) he was eligible for the one mile six furlong Donoughmore Maiden Plate because he was, indeed, a maiden on the Flat. There were thirteen runners for the weight for age contest; Arkle had to carry 9 stone 6lb along with three others and the lowest weight was 7 stone 13lb; Arkle was odds-on favourite.
It meant he would have to have a flat race jockey. One of the very best professionals was chosen in Tommy ‘TP’ Burns, who had not only been Champion jockey three times, but who had also grown up with Greenogue very much a part of his childhood.
Speaking in early 2013, just before his eighty-ninth birthday, TP recalled, ‘I spent a lot of my childhood at Tom Dreaper’s and rode a pony around the yard there. He taught me to drive a motor car and he was a friend. My father, Tommy, hunted with the Wards, and used to ride young horses from Tom when cattle were his number one business and the horses were his pleasure.
‘There were some good horses there and they were very carefully trained. They weren’t roughed up and half broken down before reaching maturity; he knew how to mind horses, and they would go on racing until they were twelve years old.’
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THIS ARTICLE FIRST APPEARED IN - EUROPEAN TRAINER - ISSUE 43
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Author: Anne Holland