In the build up to Cheltenham Grenville Davies takes a look back at Flyingbolt -The Forgotten Champion
On the Cheltenham Festival Roll of Honour – Arkle, Desert Orchid, Dawn Run and Kauto Star always get a mention; Flyingbolt is often amiss from this list. Yet his achievements put him up there with the greatest of them all and but for bad luck and illness, he would no doubt have topped them all. For in what he achieved, only two other horses have accomplished, in winning three different races in successive years at the Festival, the others being Bobs Worth and Vautour. Douvan is attempting the same and if he does, they will then be the same three races that Flyingbolt triumphed in.
Flyingbolt was bred by sheer chance. Racing book dealer Robert Way realised that Airborne, the 1946 Derby and St. Leger winner, needed a home, so he was put in a paddock with his mare Eastlock, as he believed him to be infertile and he thought Eastlock was barren. Romance kicked in and in 1959 a chestnut colt was foaled.
Eventually Flyingbolt made his way to the stable of Tom Dreaper and was finally bought by Mrs Jean Wilkinson, just as Arkle was making his name known in the racing world.
Flyingbolt's debut was in a 12-furlong flat race at Leopardstown in May 1963. Five months later he recorded his first success, in a national hunt flat race at Navan. On the same card, a certain Arkle gained his only flat win. There then followed three wins over hurdles, the last of those was the Scalp Hurdle, where he laid down the gauntlet to the opposition on both sides of the Irish Sea. The logical step was the Gloucester Hurdle then run in two divisions, now better known as the Supreme Novices, a race he won by 4 lengths at odds of 4/9. The race that year was run on a Thursday, as the Festival ran from Thursday to Saturday. The highlight of course, was Arkle beating Mill House, in a head to head that lived up to all of its billing.
In the autumn of ‘64, he was sent novice chasing and three facile wins in Ireland resulted in him starting favourite, yet again at odds of 4/9 in the Cotswold Chase (now known as the Arkle). With the race, never in doubt, he ran out an easy five length winner. He ended the 1964-65 season with a win at Fairyhouse carrying 12st 2 pounds to victory.
Stories about Arkle and his personality are almost as legendary as his achievements on the racecourse - Flyingbolt though was as near to a savage as a horse can be. Whereas Arkle was Dr Jekyll, Flyingbolt was very much Mr Hyde, as Pat Taaffe who rode both of them to all their major victories said. “No child, no man would ever willingly walk into Flyingbolt's...at least, not twice. He'd kick the eye out of your head.” This may explain his lack of popularity with the racing public. In a recent poll run by the Racing Post, to find the favourite 100 racehorses; Arkle came top, Flyingbolt was nowhere. If “Himself” was the clean-cut boy next door, Flyingbolt would have been expelled from school on his first day.
Flyingbolt's first outing of the 65-66 season was at the now defunct Phoenix Park, where he finished fourth in a handicap hurdle having to concede two stone and more to his rivals. This though was only a mere pipe opener to a season, which by the end would leave racegoers in awe of all they had witnessed. Two easy wins over fences followed, one of those being Ascot's Black and White Whisky Gold Cup, where he hammered his rivals by fifteen lengths. That though was nothing compared to what followed a couple of weeks later at Cheltenham. Carrying 12st 6lbs in the Massey Ferguson Gold Cup, he could have pulled a tractor and still won. Winning as he pleased by fifteen lengths in bottomless going, having carried at least 25lbs more than horses as good as Scottish Memories, who twice the previous season had come up against Arkle and wasn't disgraced behind him. As Pat Taaffe wrote in his autobiography My Life and Arkle's, “Didn't this prove that Flyingbolt was now every bit as good as his more illustrious stable-mate?” So, a star was born.
Flyingbolt went to post as the 1-5 favourite in the Two Mile National Hunt Champion Chase (now the Queen Mother Chase) and the race was never in doubt, taking the lead two out he won in a common canter by fifteen lengths, in a manner reminiscent of Master Minded, when he won in 2008. As the race used to be on the opening day and he had had little more than an exercise canter, it was then decided to take in the Champion Hurdle the following day. One of his opponents that day, Salmon Spray, had finished a well beaten third behind Flyingbolt earlier in the season at Ascot. When it mattered though the result would be different, Salmon Spray receiving an excellent ride from that supreme stylist Johnnie Haine who nipped up the inside and in many an expert eye stole the race. Pat Taaffe equally gave the outside to no-one and was just out-foxed. Beaten just over three lengths into third but for misjudging the fourth last he would have been a lot closer.
Johnny Lumley must have felt like the luckiest man alive, as he had the good fortune to look after both Arkle and Flyingbolt; well they always say a great horse needs a great lad.
Flyingbolt’s next race was in the Irish Grand National in which he carried the welter burden of 12 stone 7lbs carrying at least 40lbs more than his opponents, beating Height O’Fashion by two lengths, giving her 40lbs, ten more than when Arkle beat her two years previously, in third was the previous year’s winner Splash who was in receipt of 42lbs. Pat Taaffe said of the occasion. “He made winning look an easy thing that day. Once again, I was reminded that I was alternating between the king and crown prince of chasing. More than ever, it now seemed only a matter of time before he took over from Arkle."
Would the two have met on the racecourse, we will never know but what we do know is that Tom Dreaper who trained them both would have done his damnedest to keep them apart, this belief probably originates because of an infamous gallop one day at Greenogue, as Pat Taaffe yet again puts so eloquently. "Flyingbolt was hacking along with Paddy Woods on his back and a funny look in his eye. Upsides on Arkle, I was thinking to myself that I would never see a prouder horse than this. Then he turned his head and slowly looked us over. You could almost see the curl of the lip. This was the 'Who are these peasants?' look of his that I was to come to know so well and I suppose I should have been forewarned. Next thing I knew he's taken a strong hold and was away. Not to be outdone, Arkle took an equally strong hold and got up alongside. And so, these two young chasers who were then potentially the best in the world staged their own private race during what was supposed to be a normal session of morning schooling. They took the next four fences, neck and neck, flat out as though their lives depended on the outcome, while Paddy and I held on to them for dear life and waited for the fires to die down. Well, they cleared them all right, but it was a bit too close for comfort and Mr. Dreaper never allowed them to be schooled together again.”
Flyingbolt’s owner Jean Wilkinson would quite rightly have had other ideas, as the racing public waited with bated breath for the forthcoming season and the hoped-for clash of titans, which would have broken all box-office records. The Racing Gods though would deem otherwise. For Arkle broke a Pedal Bone in his foot at Kempton over Christmas, whilst Flyingbolt contracted Brucellosis - a blood disease which also causes severe muscle pain. He more than likely caught it whilst out at summer in a field with some cattle. Arkle never saw a racecourse again in anger. Flyingbolt did soldier on but was a mere shadow of his former self and his magnificence was no more than a distant memory. After some lac-lustre performances Tom Dreaper wanted to retire him but the owners decided to send him to Britain to be trained, first by Ken Oliver and then Roddy Armytage. His best performance was in the 1969 King George VI Chase at Kempton, where he finished second to Titus Oates. Ironically the previous running of this race saw Arkle’s final outing, where he also finished second.
Who was the better Arkle or Flyingbolt? It is a question that we will never know the answer to but what we do know is that the Official Handicapper knew that there was not much to choose between them, as he had Arkle 1Ib superior, whilst Timeform had Arkle rated 2Ib higher, at the end of the 1965-66 season. No other steeplechaser has come within a stone of Arkle.
Perhaps the final word should rest with Barry Brogan who rode them both out whilst at Tom Dreaper’s and rode Flyingbolt to his final victory at Haydock in 1969 said in an interview with the Racing Post in 2008: “For all Arkle’s brilliance, I felt Flyingbolt was the better horse. If Pat Taaffe was alive, he’d tell you the same.”