Arkle: Simply The Best

Over five decades have passed since Arkle beat Dormant by 30 lengths to win his third Cheltenham Gold Cup, but he remains the yardstick by which all National Hunt horses, especially steeplechasers, are measured. His remarkable Timeform of 212 – 30lb superior to that of Best Mate, the only other horse since 1966 to win the Cheltenham Gold Cup three times – has rightly been questioned in recent years. However, as jockey Ruby Walsh said, “Ratings are only people’s opinions”, and the general opinion is that Arkle is the foremost steeplechaser in the history of National Hunt racing.

 

Owned by Anne, Duchess of Westminster, trained by Tom Dreaper and ridden by Pat Taafe, Arkle not only won the Cheltenham Gold Cup in three successive years, but the King George VI Chase, the Irish Grand National, the Hennessy Gold Cup (twice), the Whitbread Gold Cup and a further 14 of his 26 races over fences. Perhaps his defining moment came in the Gallaher Gold Cup in 1965 when, carrying 12st 7lb, he beat Rondetto by 20 lengths, conceding 26lb. Rondetto had previously won the Festival Trophy Handicap Chase at the Cheltenham under 11st 10lb, so he was no slouch. The race time, 17 seconds faster than the previous course record, has yet to be surpassed in 50 years. According to the Sporting Life, “there never was such a day and no one present will ever forget the experience”.

Unfortunately, Arkle was to run his last race in the King George VI in 1966, during which he fractured the large bone in his foot, known as the pedal bone, but still finished second, beaten half a length. Despite initial optimism about his injury, Arkle was officially retired in 1968 and spent the rest of life at Bryanstown, Co. Kildare, a 700-acre estate belonging to his owner, where he was euthanised two years later after suffering crippling arthritis.

A true Cheltenham legend – phenomenon, wonder, call him what you will – the horse popularly known as ‘Himself’ is commemorated with statue overlooking the parade ring at Prestbury Park and his skeleton is on display at the Irish National Stud in Co. Kildare.

 

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Cause Of Causes: An Idle Little Horse (Apparently)

Certain exceptional horses receive public acclaim beyond the world of horse racing by winning one of the ‘championship’ races at the Cheltenham Festival, such as the Champion Hurdle or Cheltenham Gold Cup, three, four or even more times. However, other horses, whose names may not be quite so recognisable, return to Cheltenham year after year and win different races, over different distances and/or even in different disciplines.

 

One such horse in recent years is Cause Of Causes, now a 10-year-old, trained in Co. Meath by Gordon Elliot. The Dynaformer gelding made his first appearance at the Cheltenham Festival in 2013, finishing seventh of 12 in the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle won by Champagne Fever. He fared better the following year, finishing second of 23 in the Fulke Walwyn Kim Muir Challenge Cup won by Spring Heeled and better again in 2015, staying on to win the National Hunt Chase by 1½ lengths.

He failed to trouble the judge on his next five starts but, back at Cheltenham in 2016, and reunited with leading amateur rider Jamie Codd, romped home by 12 lengths in the Fulke Walwyn Kim Muir Challenge Cup. His next five starts were, once again, non-descript, but he was back on song for the Festival in 2017, forging clear to win the Glenfarclas Cross Country Chase by 9 lengths.

In so doing, he achieved a notable treble for Jamie Codd but, for once, the partnership wasn’t quite finished for the season, going on to finish an honourable second in the Grand National at Aintree three weeks later. Having already joined the likes of Flyingbolt, Bobs Worth and Vautour as the winner of three different races at the Festival, Cause Of Causes remains in training this season, but don’t expect much before March.

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Paul Nicholls: Master of Ditcheat

Plenty of water has flown under the bridge since Broadheath, ridden by one Paul Nicholls, won the Hennessy Gold Cup under 10st 5lb in 1986 but, in the 25 years or so since his retirement from the saddle, at the age of 29, Nicholls has done quite well for himself. I am, of course, talking about former Champion National Hunt Trainer Paul Nicholls, nowadays better known for his ample girth, velvet-collared coat and association with horses such as Kauto Star, Denman and Big Buck’s, to name but three.

 

Nicholls was crowned Champion National Hunt Trainer for the first time in 2005/06, the first of seven consecutive titles, and headed the prize money list again in 2013/14, 2014/15 and 2015/16. Success at the Cheltenham Festival came even sooner, with Nicholls catapulted into the limelight with the victories of See More Business in the Cheltenham Gold Cup, Call Equiname in the Queen Mother Champion Chase and Flagship Uberalles in the Arkle Challenge Trophy in 1999. In 2002, Ruby Walsh became stable jockey at Ditcheat, and Nicholls became Leading Trainer at the Cheltenham Festival five more times until the pair parted company in 2013.

 

Cheltenham winners have been harder to come by in recent years, in the face of increasingly stiff competition from across the Irish Sea, but a quick look at the current standings in the Trainers’ Championship reveals that Nicholls lead the way, a little over £200,000 clear of his nearest rival. Still only 55, the Master of Ditcheat may have plenty more racing history to write just yet.

 

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