“An unforgettable character of the 1970’s National Hunt scene”
There have been many post war chasers more famous than the Fulke Walwyn trained gelding, The Dikler, but few as durable or as popular. A Cheltenham Gold Cup warrior, who took the major prize in 1973, he contested the blue riband of National Hunt racing on seven occasions. But it was his character coupled with his bold jumping which caught the National Hunt public’s imagination during his 7 year racing career.
The museum’s Stephen Wallis takes up the story of the massive white faced bay gelding who Lord Oaksey described “as a constant source of entertainment, excitement, inspiration and occasionally exasperation to the jumping world”. A description that cannot be bettered.
Foaled in Ireland in 1963 the horse was sired by Vulgan, the most prominent National Hunt sire of the 1960’s and 1970’s, out of an unraced mare, Coronation Day, whose sire Grand Weather won the 1947 Irish 2,000 Guineas. He was purchased in 1966 for 3,000 guineas by Edward Bea a former colonial maize farmer in then Rhodesia from the Ballymacol stud in Co Meath after advice from his friends, Robert and Diane Fanshawe.
In addition to farming 500 acres in Gloucestershire he bred flat horses at his Cotswold stud and owned steeplechasers as a hobby. Tragically Edward Bea died suddenly before the three year old had arrived back at his stud and the horse was inherited by his two nieces, Peggy August and Katherine Gregory. Katherine had no interest in horses so Peggy decided to buy out her sister’s half share. She named the horse The Dikler after a stream that bordered her uncle’s estate, though she also christened him Tuppeny as at the time she did not think he was worth anything.
Regarded at the time as her unwarranted inheritance the ugly duckling was moved to her family farm in Burford, Oxfordshire once her uncle’s farm was sold. In fact previous efforts to sell the horse when the farm was sold proved fruitless,and in view of the derisory offers she concluded he was meant to stay.
Initially the horse was sent to trainer Tim Forster at Letcombe Basset, Wantage. However, three months after arrival, the now strapping 17.2 hand horse was sent back home after Forster declared him no good. Mrs August then placed The Dikler in the hands of John Honeyball, who had earlier broken the horse in, and had developed a special relationship with the troublesome bay.
Honeyball’s sympathetic handling worked, to the extent that The Dikler was initially sent to show jumping meetings with him on board and subsequently point to pointing where ridden by Captain Brian Fanshawe, Robert Fanshawe’s son he won races at Crowell and Kimble. The mighty horse was beginning to show his undoubted potential, though his eccentricity was never far away, as in what proved to be his last point to point he ran out into the centre of the course.
After running so well in point to points it was now time for Peggy to move The Dikler to a professional trainer and after meeting leading trainer Fulke Walwyn (1910-91) in May 1969, the horse was transferred two months later to his Saxon House stables in Lambourn. Walwyn, who had been the champion trainer on five occasions was renowned for his success with chasers of the calibre of Mill House and Mandarin, whilst he had ridden (Reynoldstown 1936) and trained (Team Spirit 1964) a Grand National winner.
The Dikler made a winning racecourse debut on 15 November 1969 at Cheltenham in the Herringbourne Novice Chase with stable jockey Willie Robinson on board. Although he made a bad mistake at the last fence The Times newspaper remarked that his performance was one of unqualified promise. A subsequent victory in Newbury’s Hopeful Novice chase over 3 miles led to some more favourable reports, though these were checked on his next outing when he stumbled on landing at the 4th fence at Warwick and unseated Robinson. Despite re-mounting Robinson then pulled him up at the 6th.
However, even after three runs as a novice, newspaper reports indicated that Walwyn was already considering the Cheltenham Gold Cup. Indeed he moved out of the novice class to win his next race at Kempton before he over jumped and fell at the second fence in the Grange Chase at Ascot over 3 miles. Subsequently the gelding was entered for the Coventry Pattern Handicap chase at Kempton which featured another leading fancy for the Gold Cup, Titus Oats. There he produced a superb jumping performance, but was defeated by Stan Mellor on Titus Oats by a neck. Esteemed journalist Lord Oaksey cheekily remarked that riding the big horse was like “sitting on an active volcano”.
After six races in his novice season The Dikler took his chance in the Gold Cup in field of 12, but fell at the 11th on the second circuit when going well. The gelding never fell again. The race was won by the then unheralded 33/1 Irish outsider L’Escargot with fellow Irish horse French Tan a length and half behind in 2nd and Spanish Steps 3rd.
Inside twelve months The Dikler had moved from the point to point arena to the grandest National Hunt stage with definite signs that they were was much more to come. He had certainly already caught the imagination of the racing public who loved his flamboyant devil-may-care style of racing. Stan Mellor took over the ride for the 1970/71 season, following Willie Robinson’s retirement but though he won on the horse at Newbury and Ascot, in January 1971, the blend wasn’t right. The horse then ran a disappointing last of three in the Gainsborough Chase at Sandown in February when receiving weight from Gold Cup contenders Titus Oats and French Tan. He then veered badly out to the right in the Manifesto Chase at Lingfield where he eventually came 2nd in a weak three runner field.
Mellor was unfortunately injured for the Cheltenham Festival so young Irishman Barry Brogan took the ride. Brogan had stood in for Mellor at Cheltenham in December and had employed hold up tactics successfully. As they lined up in the Gold Cup no one could be sure what mood the horse would be in. If he was like the express train at Lingfield this would only mean trouble.
On heavy ground L’Escargot repeated his win of 1970, but the Dikler (15/2) ran probably his best race of the season to finish 3rd, though he was a well beaten 25 lengths by the winner. Newspaper reports after the race even suggested that Walwyn might consider dropping The Dikler in trip next season with the aim of winning the two mile Champion Chase, the opinion being he might be better suited to stride along in front to utilise his speed.
With those thoughts in mind The Dikler made his seasonal bow in a 2 mile chase at Ascot where he finished 2nd behind the Australian chaser Crisp. The gelding then had two impressive performances in the two pre Christmas handicaps at Cheltenham both over 2m 4f. In the Mackeson Gold Cup he finished 4th behind Gay Trip whilst in the Massey Ferguson Gold he nearly caught the Tom Dreaper trained Leap Frog close home, but finally went down by a head. Behind The Dikler were Titus Oats. Gay Trip and Crisp.
His next run defined The Dikler as a major player in the jumping game. A strong field lined up in the prestigious King George VI chase at Kempton: the dual Gold Cup winner, L’Escargot, top Irish mare Glencaraig Lady, Spanish Steps and Titus Oats. The latter’s front running tactics helped Walwyn’s 8 year old as he did not need to be held up at any fence and jumping freely he won by half a length from Spanish Steps.
Thoughts now turned to the Gold Cup after the trainer’s early season reservations. He was provisionally entered for The Grand National, where he was allocated 11st 9Ib in the weights but was withdrawn at the first acceptance stage. At Cheltenham, The Dikler jumped the last, two lengths clear, only to be caught in the run in by Glencaraig Lady and Royal Toss to finish 3rd, three quarters of length and a head behind the 8 year old Irish mare. L’Escargot looking for his third successive win came 4th, whilst the 3/1 favourite Crisp failed to stay, and was unplaced in the sticky ground.
Just over two weeks later an attempt to win the Irish Grand National at Fairyhouse failed when the Dikler pulled up half way round the course in very heavy going.
After his improving performances in the Cheltenham showpiece the 1972/73 season firmly established The Dikler’s credentials as one of National Hunts premier staying chasers. This was confirmed with his historic never to be forgotten Gold Cup win on 15 March 1973.
The season began with a 12st 3Ib top weight carrying 3rd in the Massey Ferguson Gold Cup, not over his ideal trip but a useful preliminary for the King George. Although the horse had been successful a year ago, Kempton’s tight right handed turns were not ideal for the giant bay gelding, plus in 1972 he was pitted against the improving Fred Winter trained 7 year old Pendil. On the day Pendil comfortably took the honours beating The Dikler by 5 lengths though it could have been much further if Richard Pitman had not eased up the youngster in the run in.
Two wins at Wincanton followed, before the horse ran a very disappointing warm up for the Gold Cup on 21 February at Windsor. Although first past the post he hung badly to the left after jumping the last, seriously hampering Bob Davies on Spanish Steps and the stewards had no option but to take the race away from him. Once again The Dikler had lived up to his unpredictable nature. Significantly, the Windsor race was to be Barry Brogan’s last on the giant, a disappointing end for such a strong rider, but plagued by ill health he returned home to Ireland.
The Saxon House team were now without a jockey only ten days before the biggest race of the season. The stable’s choice was the champion jockey elect, Irishman, Ron Barry who was recommend by Terry Biddlecombe, who was engaged to ride Walwyn’s other Gold Cup runner Charlie Potheen.
Following the King George defeat very few of the racing journalists expected The Dikler to turn round the form with Pendil at Cheltenham, who lined up as the 4/6 on favourite after 11 successive steeplechase wins. Both L’Escargot, though now a 20/1 outsider, and Spanish Steps were in a small field of 8 alongside Charlie Potheen, who went off as the 9/2 second favourite. The latter had won the 1972 Hennessy Gold Cup in November 1972 and was a renowned front runner.
Gold Cup Glory
Few Gold Cups have been as exciting as 1973, the crowd expecting to see the coronation of a young chaser, who they expected to give champion trainer Fred Winter his first blue riband win. As expected Charlie Potheen made the running with the favourite going well whilst Barry had The Dikler settled at the rear of the field.
Rounding the home turn Charlie Potheen was still in the lead, but beginning to tire, Pendil, full of running was 2nd, The Dikler 3rd and L’Escargot 4th. The favourite took the lead at the 2nd last, quickened and went two lengths clear of The Dikler as they approached the last obstacle. Reviewing Peter O’Sullivan’s commentary on You Tube he said “He surely only has to jump this fence, this fence between Pendil and victory” or so it seemed. The 17-hand, white faced gelding with his new jockey had other ideas and a fabulous leap at the last cut down the favourite’s advantage. The extra staying power of The Dikler began to reel in the favourite and with only 25 yards to go he got up to win in a photo finish by a short head. Stable companion Charlie Potheen finished six lengths behind in 3rd with L’Escargot 4th.
The Dikler’s extra staying power had made the difference as he bounded up the Cheltenham run in to secure Fulke Walwyn’s fourth Gold Cup win at 9/1. The time recorded beat the previous best set by Fort Leney in 1968 by 12.4 seconds. The former point to point horse who some regarded as the ‘enfant terrible’ of National Hunt racing had vindicated the trainer’s handling of the horse along with the care of the stable’s lad ‘Darkie’ Deacon.
A Cheltenham re-run
The following season (1973/74) was the last in which the Cheltenham Gold Cup was considered the horse’s main target. A familiar pattern was chosen although his first two runs saw him come 3rd behind his great rival Pendil, who beat him in the Massey Ferguson Gold Cup and the King George VI Chase both by comprehensive margins. After Christmas there was a repeat win in the John Bull Chase at Wincanton a hard earned 2nd conceding 34Ibs to the winner in the Great Yorkshire Chase at Doncaster followed by victory in the 3 mile Harwell chase at Newbury.
It all seemed like déjà vu in the build up to the top prize at the 1974 Cheltenham Festival with the racing public eagerly looking forward to the clash between the old warrior versus the fleet footed Pendil. Pendil, who arrived at the festival fresh from four successive seasonal wins, headed the market at 8/13 with The Dikler 2nd favourite at 5/1. The Pat Taaffe trained 7 year old novice chaser Captain Christy (7/1) led the Irish challenge but he was regarded as risky jumper who might struggle to complete the course. Meanwhile another runner who carried the public’s interest was the Queen Mother’s horse Game Spirit, trained by Fulke Walwyn. Charlie Potheen made up a trio of Saxon House runners amongst a field of seven.
The race came to life at the 3rd last when 100/1 outsider High Ken, known as a doubtful jumper, fell, only to bring down the odds on favourite who was going easily. The Dikler was left in front earlier than Ron Barry would have wished with Bobby Beasley on Captain Christy just behind. He jumped the last upsides the improving Captain Christy but despite gaining an advantage after a customary bold leap, while the novice faltered at the last, the youngster galloped away from the 11 year old in the run in to win by 5 lengths. Captain Christy had become the first novice to win the race since the Fulke Walwyn trained Mount Tremblant in 1952. The Queen Mother’s horse Game Spirit trailed in twenty lengths back in 3rd with Walwyn’s other runner Charlie Potheen 4th.
The Dikler’s last victory
The Dikler’s last win came in the end of season finale at Sandown, The Whitbread Gold Cup. Walwyn had a tremendous record in the big handicap and had won the race twelve months earlier with Charlie Potheen. He had at the time also guided Mill House (1967) and Taxidermist (1958) to success in the race, the latter with amateur John Lawrence now Load Oaksey in the saddle. This year’s encounter was not without incident and involved Walwyn’s winning jockey of 1958.
The Dikler carrying the top weight of 11st 13Ibs under Ron Barry settled well and worked his way through the field of 16. At the last fence The Dikler was narrowly behind Lord Oaksey on Proud Tarquin, who even with his jockey’s overweight had a 24Ib advantage. On the flat Proud Tarquin swerved to the left, which caused The Dikler to move over to avoid being bumped. Fractionally stopping his gallop, although soon back in his stride, the horse went down by a neck in a very tight finish. Sadly for Oaksey the Stewards decided to reverse the placings as they deemed his horse had interfered with The Dikler even though there was no contact.
Along the Melling Road
After the glory of the Whitbread the ageing gelding’s target became the Grand National and those famous obstacles at Aintree, which many thought would suit the massive horse with his superb jumping. He began his season in late November 1974 when he made his only attempt to win Newbury’s Hennessy Gold Cup where as top weight he finished 6th behind the 10st bottom weight, Royal Marshall II. Afterwards he was 5th in the Massey Ferguson and very disappointing 4th of 6 in the Mandarin Chase at Newbury in very soft going.
On route to Aintree the horse ran in the Gold Cup but the 20/1 shot was pulled up in heavy going at the 12th. Thirty one runners went to post in the Aintree showpiece with a vast proportion of the crowd hoping to see Red Rum win for the third consecutive time.
The Dikler carrying 11st 13Ibs was prominent throughout the race, 5th at half way and as they crossed the Melling Road for the final time 3rd behind Red Rum and his old adversary L’Escargot. A tiring horse, shouldering his big weight he faded on the long run in to eventually finish 5th at 20/1. Ahead of him were two very familiar foes, Spanish Steps in 3rd and L’Escargot who beat Red Rum by 15 lengths to deny the latter another famous victory.
His final season 1975/76 followed a similar path on the road to Aintree although his seasonal debut was not until New Year’s Eve where he came 3rd at Cheltenham. Generally though, performances were mixed. They included a respectable 2nd, beaten only 4 lengths at level weights by Gold Cup fancy Bula in the Gainsborough Chase at Newbury, coupled with his refusal to race in the Whitbread Trial at Ascot. Even in the twilight of his career The Dikler had the ability to surprise, especially his jockey that day Bill Smith, and infuriate his supporters.
The Cheltenham Gold Cup was chosen as his final trial for Liverpool as the camp thought it better to enter a level weights contest than concede plenty of weight to rivals in a normal handicap chase. Walwyn’s second jockey Aly Brandford took the ride on the 33/1 outsider while Ron Barry rode Money Market. In his final trip to Prestbury Park The Dikler finished 8th to Royal Frolic.
Allocated 11st 7Ib for the Grand National The Dikler jumped round without much trouble. He was again handily placed early on; jumping the 12th in 2nd place, he was fifth at half way and in the leading group crossing the Melling Road for the final time. However, he failed to truly stay the last half mile and finished 6th out of 32 runners at 25/1.
Asked if the horse would have won the Grand National in his prime Ron Barry did not think so.
“There were” he said “too many horses in it, and too many distractions; and with me,” he added, “he never really settled, never relaxed. He was always fighting for his head and using up his energy. But over the fences he gave me a super ride both times.”
Now 13 The Dikler made his final appearance at Sandown on 24 April 1974 in the Whitbread Gold Cup. The old warrior put up a creditable swansong to finish 4th of the 14 runners behind Otter Way with Grand National legend Red Rum, the 5/1 favourite, eight lengths behind him in 5th.
When Peggy now Boddington, who remarried after the death of her husband David in 1974, went to collect The Dikler for the last time from Saxon House veteran trainer Fulke Walwyn was close to tears, such was his affection for the giant.
After his racing career The Dikler went 3 day eventing where he excelled at dressage. He was put down at the age of 21 in 1984.
We are unlikely to see another horse like The Dikler. Yes he was exasperating, difficult to steer as some of his jockeys could testify, a hard puller with a mind of his own at times, but brave, tough a splendid jumper, who captured the hearts of the racing fraternity. In all he won 14 of 53 races under rules over 7 seasons.
Stable staff are often the unsung heroes of racing but a brief mention must be made of The Dikler's lad, "Darkie" Deacon. Every day the horse was at Saxon House it was Darkie who loved and cared for him; undoubtedly that helped the warrior endure.
He will always be remembered for his memorable 1973 Gold Cup victory when he thundered up the Cheltenham hill to defeat Pendil alongside his two gallant Aintree performances under big weights. But most remarkable are those 7 successive Cheltenham Gold Cup runs (F3312P8) surely unlikely ever to be matched.