Arkle's Last Stand

25th December 2014

Arkle’s Last Stand

December 27 1966

When the most famous steeplechaser of all time lined up for the King George VI chase at Kempton on 27 December 1966 his victory seemed to be a formality.  Triumph in the day’s Christmas showpiece was seen as a prelude to a fourth consecutive Cheltenham Gold Cup the following March. Arkle approaching ten was a colossus.  He had won 27 of his 34 races, (22 of his 25 steeplechases) regularly conceded lumps of weight to his rivals and was widely expected to challenge Golden Miller’s record of five Cheltenham Gold Cup successes.

Stephen Wallis takes you back to a grey, misty day at Kempton where a packed crowd of 16,000 people were looking forward to another exciting racing day in the life of a sporting superstar.  To put his position in the public eye into perspective, and it’s hard now to imagine this, but when at the end of 1966 TV Times magazine held a poll for their  most popular personality of the year, the Beatles were third, England World Cup wining captain Bobby Moore was runner up, Arkle was first.

The King George had been delayed for one day due to an early morning frost.  Monday’s Boxing Day programme was rescheduled for the following day with Tuesday’s card being abandoned.  In fact his trainer Tom Dreaper had not travelled over from Ireland to the Sunbury on Thames course as he had chosen to look after his runners at Leopardstown.  His wife Betty came over with the rest of the team which included their fifteen year old son Jim.

The 1966/67 National Hunt season had so far seen Arkle run twice after an eight month layoff since his Gold Cup triumph.  Firstly, the horse was narrowly beaten in the Hennessy Gold Cup by Ken Cundell’s improving grey, Stalbridge Colonist by half a length, despite conceding 35Ib’s.  In fact many racing experts later reckoned it was one of his best ever performances, allowing for his first run of the season and the later displays by the young victor.

Subsequently, Arkle had comfortably won the SGB Chase at Ascot on 14 December by fifteen lengths.  Despite a temporary scare after the race, Arkle had a cut on his nearside front foot, all lookedset for the Irish legend to win his second King George VI Chase.  Arkle had won the previous year’s race when, as the 1/7 favourite, he had defeated Dormant by a distance.  The race was sadly remembered more for the sad demise of Colonel Bill Whitbread’s horse Dunkirk the reigning Cheltenham festival two mile champion chaser who had fallen, broken his neck and had to be put down after falling badly at the 15th fence.

So who else lined up on that fateful day at Kempton Park?  Not his old adversary Mill House who had been withdrawn after pulling a muscle in his hind quarters whilst training on Christmas Day, though he was shown in the original race card.  However, the small field of 7 featured some interesting horses one of which, Foinavon, was to become a worldwide name in less than four months.

The two horses with the best records were Dormant and Woodland Venture.  The nine year old chestnut Dormant had been runner up to Arkle in the 1966 Cheltenham Gold Cup, albeit beaten by adistance.  His major triumph had been the 1964 Whitbread Gold Cup where he beat Mill House, he had not won a race since then.  In fact the horse was more renowned for the amazing number of times he changed stables, switching during his career from Ryan Price, his owner Doris Wells Kendrew to Neville Crump, who was responsible for his Whitbread win.  Even after the latter victory the horsehad moved at least another three times before finally returning to the Wells- Kendrewses near Dorking.

Meanwhile Woodland Venture, a very promising six year old bay, was trained by Fred Rimell, who  in the previous season had won three novice chases and finished 5th in the Totalisator Champion Novices’  chase (now the Arkle Chase) at the Cheltenham festival.  Prior to the Bank Holiday race Woodland Venture had won handicap chases at Cheltenham and Newbury, though this race was his first step up in class.

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Like Arkle, Foinavon was originally owned by the Duchess of Westminster but having failed to fulfil his promise had moved over to England where he was now trained by John Kempton, who was in the saddle for Kempton’s festive highlight.  His only other similarity with the great horse was that he had been named after a Scottish mountain! His season so far amounted to indifferent performances at Newton Abbott, Devon and Exeter (twice), Huntingdon and Ludlow. His preliminary race for the King George had been finishing 4th in a 3m chase at Ascot

The remaining trio were Arctic Ocean, Maigret and Scottish Final.  Arctic Ocean had not been seen on a racecourse following a very distant third in last year’s King George.  Maigret was a reasonable chaser who had won over the King George course and distance in October and was trained by Arkle’s biographer Ivor Herbert whilst Scottish Final was a nine year old handicap chaser who had failed to make the frame in his previous three outings.

Arkle was set to carry 12st 7 Ib’s with the nearest in the weights being Rimell’s young hopeful and Maigret, both on 11st 7Ib’s, whilst Dormant, ridden by Jeff King, carried 11st.As a winner of a race worth more than £4,000 since 1964 Arkle had to carry 21 Ib’s more than the base weight of 11st.The form of the supporting cast compared to the global superstar was reflected in the betting ring as Arkle was sent off at 2/9 followed by Woodland Venture 6/1, Dormant 10/1, Maigret 100/6, Scottish Final 25/1, with Foinavon and Arctic Ocean both 33/1.

Pat Taaffe set Arkle out in front and considering he was only conceding 21 Ib’s it seemed the ideal move although almost immediately he felt something was wrong.  At the second fence Arkle jumped untypically to the left, strikingly like he had done at the last three Ascot fences only two weeks previously.

He continued to lead for the first circuit with Dormant and Woodland Venture just behind with Maigret still in contention.  However, the Irish superstar’s usual spring heeled jumping was missing, and at the 14th as Pat Taaffe recalled in Ivor Herbert’s book, “he went right through it”.  The alarm bells were now ringing as Terry Biddlecombe on the second favourite went past him.  Arkle rallied to regain the lead and at this point both Dormant and Maigret seemed without a chance.

As they turned for home Biddlecombe drove his young charger in front with two fences left to jump in the home straight. The courageous Arkle most probably suffering with each stride in his off fore foot edged back to lead as they jumped this, the 18th where his young rival clipped the top foot of the fence and fell.

Arkle was now left all alone, ten lengths clear, but struggling, his stride shortening in front of the packed crowd in the stands.  Dormant entered the straight still way behind the favourite but Jeff King failed to give up the chase and began to close the gap. Arkle jumped the last awkwardly to his left, obviously as we later knew to take the pressure off his off fore, but the post for once in his racing career was too far away.  Dormant caught him twenty yards from home; the impossible had happened, Arkle had been beaten.  Third was Maigret, fourth Foinavon and fifth Scottish Final.  Arctic Ocean had fallen at the last.

Arkle’s valiant effort was over and it immediately became apparent that the legendary horse was seriously injured.  Palpably lame once he crossed the line, Taaffe dismounted the horse to ease the pain.  He was found to have cracked the pedal bone inside the hoof of his off fore leg.  The initial diagnosis gave him only a 50/50 chance to race again and then not for at least twelve months.

Without the mighty Arkle appearing at Cheltenham, it was the first time he had not appeared since 1962, the festival had a very different feel especially as Tom Dreaper’s other star, Flyingbolt was missing due to a viral infection.   The Gold Cup now a very open contest featured three of the King George field with Terry Biddlecombe on board Woodland Venture holding off Stalbridge Colonist in a driving finish by three quarters of a length.  Dormant finished 4th while Foinavon came last of the seven finishers at 500/1.  However, his day would come only 23 days later when at 100/1 he triumphed at Aintree in arguably the most well remembered of all nationals.  Scottish Final who had been caught up in the disarray at the 23rd fence finished 8th at Aintree, which ultimately led to the biggest shock winner in the race’s history.

On the evidence of his Hennessy performance in November 1966 when he lost to the eventual, Gold Cup runner up by only half a length, despite conceding 35Ib’s it is hard to believe that at level weights Arkle would not have made it a four in a row at Cheltenham.  Over fences he was virtually unbeatable with only Dormant, Stalbridge Colonist, Flying Wild, Buona Notte, Happy Spring and his old rival Mill House beating him during his 26 races.  An amazing achievement considering the weights he had to carry and concede to his rivals.  Few sporting superstars in sport have been so without parallel. As the Racing Post wrote “We have not seen his like since and nor are we ever likely to.

Although Arkle successfully came through an operation and returned to training in 1968 he never raced again.   He pulled out of proposed hurdle race at Fairyhouse in April as he wasn’t considered right.  Reluctantly rising 12 Anne Duchess of Westminster took the decision to retire him in the autumn. Tragically by early 1970 Arkle had shown a tendency to lie down when he was turned out and after careful examination by the vet the Duchess decided to have him put down on Sunday 31 May.