A Day At The Races by Peter May. An extract chapter: Arkle vs Mill House

Posted by Lydia Unwin on

In the first extract from his new book, A Day At The Races, author Peter May throws the spotlight on the 1964 Cheltenham Gold Cup.

'Ask a hundred racing fans for their assessment of the best jumps horse of all time, and at least ninety will opt for Arkle.  Although it is over fifty years since his last race, Arkle was so dominant that the impact he made on the sport still endures to this day.

Foaled at Ballymacoll Stud in County Meath, Ireland, Arkle won three consecutive Cheltenham Gold Cups, two renewals of the King George VI Chase, an Irish Grand National when carrying 12st, two Hennessy Gold Cups, a Whitbread Gold Cup, and the Leopardstown Chase from 1964 to 1966, amongst other races.

Bought for a mere 1,150gns (£28,000 in real terms today) by Anne, Duchess of Westminster, Arkle was sent to Tom Dreaper who gave the gelding plenty of time to mature.  In appearance he was not particularly special, however he did possess an unusually deep chest which required custom-made girths.  His two National Hunt Flat Races revealed little to suggest Arkle was a superstar in the making, though he did win four of his six runs over hurdles.  It was when he was switched to chasing that his extraordinary ability became apparent.

As a six-year-old Arkle won the Broadway Chase on the opening day of the Festival meeting at Cheltenham (the race now known as the Brown Advisory Novices' Chase) establishing himself as the best novice chaser in the British Isles.  Two days later, trainer Fulke Walwyn’s Mill House won the Cheltenham Gold Cup.  Touted as a Gold Cup winner before he ever raced, Mill House’s impressive twelve-length success earned his owner a bumper payday after it was revealed that he had taken 200/1 about his horse over a year earlier.  Thoughts and hopes of a match between Arkle and Mill House were already on the minds of the racegoers as they left the track.  Eight months later their wish was granted.

At Newbury in the Hennessy Gold Cup, Mill House had to concede 5lbs to Arkle who, in turn, had to give the others at least 13lbs.  Three fences from home the two chasers were side by side and whilst they both cleared the obstacle, Arkle knuckled over and almost stopped.  His chance of success was gone and Mill House swept to an impressive win.  The opinion in the crowd was divided.  Some agreed with Pat Taaffe that, without the stumble three fences out, Arkle would have won.  The jockey was also overheard saying ‘he’ll never beat us again’ referring to Mill House.  Others would not hear of defeat for the Gold Cup hero who Walwyn referred to as ‘the best I have ever seen.’

The debate was settled at Cheltenham on a cold, snowy 7th March the following Spring.  In the 1964 Gold Cup the vast ground-devouring stride of the imposing Mill House took him into a clear lead, and by the second circuit some Arkle supporters feared that it might be an insurmountable one.  

But Taaffe was not concerned. He closed the gap to what he considered a comfortable distance and then was content to bide his time.  Three fences from home Mill House led by three lengths; Taaffe pulled Arkle wide to allow him a clear route to the post.  Arkle began to close on the leader and they jumped the second last fence together.  At the last Arkle was a length clear, and at the finishing line the margin was five lengths.  Arkle’s Championship reign had begun.

(Photo) Arkle, with Pat Taaffe up, pictured with trainer Tom Dreaper and owner Anne, Duchess of Westminster.

(Photo) The last time the pair met was in the 1965 Gallagher Gold Cup at Sandown, where Arkle beat Mill House by 24 lengths, giving him 16lb.

Arkle is immortalised in bronze and his statue overlooks the paddock at Cheltenham.

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