When the racing journalists discuss the greats of steeplechasing their attention turns to all the usual suspects: the incomparable Arkle, his stable mate Flyingbolt, Easter Hero, Golden Miller or the more modern day heroes, Desert Orchid, Kauto Star and Sprinter Sacre.
One horse who seldom gets remembered, perhaps because his career was cut short tragically is Dunkirk, the 2 mile specialist whose spectacular jumping took the National Hunt scene by storm in the mid 1960’s.
On the eve of tomorrow’s Paddy Power Gold Cup at Cheltenham the museum’s Stephen Wallis recalls the story of the 1965 winner, when the race was known as the Mackeson Gold Cup.
Dunkirk was foaled in 1957. His dam Tolldown was a daughter of Davy Jones, who ran out at the final fence of the 1936 Grand National when alongside the eventual winner Reynoldstown. Named after the village in the Beaufort country, he was bought by Colonel Bill Whitbread, one of the foremost supporters of the jumping game through his company’s pioneering sponsorship of some of the major handicap chases.
The brown gelding’s racing story began on 24 November 1962 when he was unplaced in the Speen Novices Hurdle Division 2. The 5-year-old was based at Fairlawne, home of Peter Cazalet then trainer for the Queen Mother. Cazalet, who had a distinguished war record reaching the rank of major had been champion National Hunt trainer in 1949/50 and 1959/60.
After finishing 3rd in his next race at Windsor, Dunkirk won his first race, the 37 runner Ashford Novices Hurdle over 2 miles at Kempton in mid March with amateur Alan Lillingston in the saddle.
After two further placed runs in handicap hurdles, at Kempton and Sandown in the 1963/64 season, Cazalet switched the horse to chasing. With stable jockey and regular partner Bill Rees on board Dunkirk returned to the scene of his first triumph by making all to win the Richmond Novices Chase at Kempton. Mr Jim Joel’s promising young chaser Buona Notte was too quick for him in his next race the Henry VIII steeplechase at Sandown, but he returned to the winners’ enclosure with a win at Windsor.
Already Dunkirk was getting noticed as a bold jumping front runner who was occasionally prone to errors . He very nearly fell at the last fence in his latest victory at Windsor but nevertheless the next target was the Cheltenham Festival. Heading the weights in the 2m Cotswold Chase (now Arkle Challenge Trophy), unfortunately the horse made two bad blunders and eventually fell two fences from home. Redeeming himself at the beginning of April when he won the Calor Gas Steeplechase by 3 lengths at Newbury.
The following season was to prove the making of Dunkirk. After victories, on New Year’s Day at Windsor and late February at Newbury, he was a fancied runner for the National Hunt Two Mile Champion Steeplechase (now the Queen Mother Champion Chase).
In between the two victories over 2 miles Cazalet had tried the horse over 2m 4 furlongs in the Stones Ginger Wine Handicap Steeplechase at Sandown but waiting tactics by Rees had not suited. He finished 7th behind Bob Turnell’s Rondetto, whose name is forever recalled when you hear replays of the 1967 Grand National and the melee at the 23rd fence.
Nevertheless after this disappointment the win at Newbury over his favoured trip of 2 miles set the gelding up for an anticipated rousing race on the first day of the festival meeting after drifted snow had been removed from the fences on the previous afternoon.
Of the select field of six runners Dunkirk was third favourite at 8/1. The Tom Dreaper trained Ben Stack (4/5) was defending his Cheltenham title whilst W Stephenson's eight year old Greektown (9/4) had twice defeated Dunkirk. All of them were renowned for their jumping together with their preference to be at the front.
From the outset new jockey Dave Dick, who had replaced the injured Bill Rees after the Sandown failure, set off in front and he was soon over 12 lengths clear. Bounding away neither Pat Taaffe on Ben Stack nor Michael Scudamore on Greektown failed to make any real impression on the flyer from Fairlawne. Despite a near terrible mistake at the last when the horse landed sideways he still managed to win the premier 2 mile prize by 20 lengths in a time 8.8 seconds faster than the previous year.
His next two runs in the autumn of 1965 firmly cemented Dunkirk as one of the greatest ever two mile chasers. Victories at Ascot and Cheltenham were a showcase for his exhilarating jumping prowess and of his spirit when under pressure.
In the Frogmore Chase at Ascot he convincingly defeated the 1963 Gold Cup winner Mill House by 15 lengths at level weights. Although not Mill House’s preferred trip Dave Dick set Dunkirk on his customary front running style and he galloped away to win in impressive style. His new jockey had built up an excellent relationship with the flamboyant jumper but an injury when schooling at Lambourn was to deny him the chance to ride him in the Mackeson Gold Cup at Cheltenham.
The Mackeson Gold Cup was then run over a 2 mile trip not today’s 2 and half miles and Dunkirk topped the weights with 12st 7Ib in a small field of eight. His closest rival was Fulke Walwyn’s Irish Imp, who was set to carry 11st 12Ib, while the northern challenger The O’Malley was the only other to carry more than 11st.
Dunkirk was on his toes and sweated in the parade ring. Although the pace was not reported as fast, Dunkirk went straight to the front where he soon built up a four length lead. Whilst the field was strung out Rees could not shake off the challenge of bottom weight Choreographer (10st 4Ib) who having kept the Champion two miler in his sights moved up to take the lead at the open ditch, four from home.
Rees was now in unchartered territory with the front runner, should he immediately force the issue and push for home or give the horse a chance to have a second wind before the final surge up the Cheltenham hill. The experienced jockey chose the latter; he regained the lead at the second last and jumped the last two lengths in front. In the run in the 31Ib weight difference began to tell. Peter Pickford on the 50/1 outsider closed the gap until with 50 yards to go Bill Rees summoned Dunkirk’s last reserves and they crossed the finishing post a half a length in front with Irish Imp six lengths further back in 3rd. Rees had proved what a skilled horseman he was, cajoling every ounce of strength from Dunkirk who had been so used to being out in front on his own.
For such a wonderful supporter of National Hunt racing it was a special day for owner Bill Whitbread as he had won £4,000 of his own company’s money through their race sponsorship. Meanwhile Peter Cazalet trained three winners on the card including Makaldar for the Queen Mother.
The horse’s next scheduled run was due to be in the Massey Ferguson Gold Cup at Cheltenham on December 18th over 2m 5 furlongs. Declared in the overnight runners he was pulled out on the morning of the race because of the atrocious ground and as a result the racing public were denied the chance to see a clash with the 6 year old Irish pretender Flyingbolt. Splashing through the near waterlogged ground the race established Flyingbolt as a major player in the National Hunt game. His brilliant victory over 15 lengths carrying 12st 6Ib set up the mouth watering prospect of a clash with Dunkirk in the two mile championship race at the Cheltenham festival.
Surprisingly, but very sportingly Colonel Whitbread decided to then run his popular chaser in the prestigious King George VI chase over 3 miles at Kempton Park against the mighty Arkle. Frost was the major problem on Monday 27 December with six of the eight Bank Holiday fixtures being called off. Kempton Park narrowly survived, though after overnight withdrawals only two other runners lined up against the star duo, the 1964 Whitbread Gold Cup winner Dormant and novice Arctic Ocean a faller last time out at Plumpton.
Bookmakers gave Cazalet’s chaser (7/1) little chance of defeating the Irish superstar who was considered a racing certainty at 1/7 while outsiders Dormant and Arctic Ocean were 25/1 and 100/1 respectively. From the start the 20,000 crowd were given a spectacular jumping display by Bill Whitbread’s eight year old and he galloped into the lead, which after the first circuit had been extended to 20 lengths ahead of Pat Taaffe on Arkle.
Arkle in his famous yellow colours had reduced the gap to only 8 lengths as they went right towards the 14th fence, six from home. Perhaps his growing presence affected Dunkirk as he made his first mistake. The lead was now only three lengths. All the pre race predictions were starting to come true, the speedy two miler starting to fade against the Gold Cup legend.
At the fifteenth, the last open ditch Arkle rose first to take the lead, Dunkirk staggered as he approached the fence, but did not rise and went straight through the birch. While Pat Taaffe continued on his victory procession, Bill Rees lay pinned to the ground by his horse. Dunkirk had broken his neck and had died instantly; Rees his thigh broken was taken to hospital, lucky to have escaped more serious injury.
Peter Cazalet was later informed by the vet that Dunkirk had a congestion of blood in his lungs as he approached the fence which caused him to fall and to break his neck. The horse was effectively dead before he jumped the obstacle.
Whilst the large crowd felt privileged to have again seen the legend, Arkle, the day was tinged with great sadness. A young brave horse who had set alight the two mile championship over the past few seasons had been taken away in an instant. As John Oaksey wrote “the cause of Dunkirk’s death was his own fighting heart which, to the end, acknowledged no superior”
In a career of eighteen races over four seasons Colonel Bill Whitbread’s gelding had won nine races and been placed in five others. Dunkirk’s performances in 1965/66 gave him a Timeform rating of 186 which at the time placed him as the greatest two mile chaser in history. Of subsequent specialist two milers only Sprinter Sacre with an all-time high of 192 has surpassed him.
But Dunkirk was much more than the figures. He was a crowd pleaser, an exhilarating horse to watch and for his two main jockeys Bill Rees and Dave Dick to ride.
One we should not forget.