“The Big Horse”

22nd April 2016

The story of Mill House, his duels with Arkle and his glorious Whitbread win.

Tomorrow Sandown Park will stage the Bet 365 Gold Cup, formerly known as the Whitbread Gold Cup.

In this blog the museum’s Stephen Wallis looks back at Mill House, who rose to the top as a six year old novice chaser, was eclipsed by the supreme Arkle, before having a memorable day in the sun when he won the Whitbread in 1967.

The Rise

Mill House, foaled in Ireland in 1957, was the epitome of power and strength in a steeplechaser. Standing 17.2 hands high, the strapping gelding was affectionately known as “The Big Horse”.

He made his racing debut in January 1961 over hurdles at Naas finishing 4th ridden by Toss Taaffe. His first victory followed on the same course on 4 March when he was ridden by Toss’s elder brother Pat, who was later to partner Arkle. The Taaffe brothers had come in for the ride because their father had broken-in the horse for the Lawlor family who bred him. The family had named the horse after old Mrs Lawlor’s private house.

In the summer of 1961 Mill House was purchased by Bill Gollings, a wealthy advertising man, for a reputed £7,500, and sent to Epsom based trainer Syd Dale.

The gelding arrived in England with an impressive reputation but fell at the first fence on his debut at Newbury on 8 November in the 2m Blewbury Hurdle. A couple more runs over hurdles followed in the winter featuring a win at Wincanton, where he beat the fancied Rondetto, before he was entered for his first steeplechase, the New Century Chase at Hurst Park.

Significantly his debut over fences was littered with jumping errors and he fell at the eighth fence, but his next run, at Cheltenham, over a more suitable trip of 3 miles, with former champion jockey Tim Brookshaw in the saddle, marked him out as a top class chasing prospect. The official winning distance was only two lengths but as Peter O’Sullevan reported in the Daily Express he had never seen a horse win at Cheltenham so hard held.

After a fall out between owner and trainer Mill House was moved to Fulke Walwyn. Based at his Saxon House yard in Lambourn, Walwyn had been champion trainer four times and was renowned for his handling of top class chasers; his Mandarin had only months before triumphed in the 1962 Cheltenham Gold Cup.

When Pat Taaffe heard the news, he wrote to his friend, Walwyn’s stable jockey, Willie Robinson to advise him that “You will soon be on the best horse in Britain and quite possibly the world!”

The Zenith

In a matter of months the horse was transformed from a two-race-novice into the supreme chaser in the British Isles. Before Christmas the gelding won two three mile handicap chases at Sandown. However, his jumping occasionally let him down and a bad mistake at the last when one and half lengths in front at Kempton cost him the race. Mill House’s career was to be characterised by the odd jumping blunder but very often Robinson found that the horse’s strength and size enabled him to power through the tops of fences without hitting the deck.

The winter of 1962/63 was diabolical, the worst ever for cancellations due to the extended freeze and there was no racing in England between 23 December and 7 March. As a consequence trainers arrived at the National Hunt Festival unsure how their strings would perform.

Despite the enforced break the six year old Mill House, who had only completed four steeplechases, looked fully fit in the paddock and primed. He was sent off the 7/2 favourite in a field of twelve which included Irish trained Fortria, the dual Champion chase winner (1960 & 1961) and runner up behind Mandarin in the Gold Cup. Riding the Tom Dreaper trained 11 year old was Pat Taaffe.

On this day, Thursday 14 March 1963, Mill House gave the Cheltenham crowd a jumping masterclass. Taking the lead at the fourteenth Mill House powered up the straight, jumping the last two fences on his own to win by twelve lengths ahead of Fortria. Mill House was immediately compared to the five time winner of the blue riband, Golden Miller, who had first won the race as a five year old in 1932. Many racing experts believed Walwyn’s strapping young charger was set for a similar run of success.

However, only two days earlier a fellow six year old chaser from Ireland had won the Festival’s Broadway Chase (now the RSA Chase) by 20 lengths. The racing public immediately began to speculate what would happen when the two young tyros lined up against each other. How would the bold jumping Champion, who liked to gallop from the front fare against the highly regarded Irish novice who was a more economical jumper with the express turn of foot at the finish?

They had to wait until the last day of November 1963 in the Hennessy Gold Cup at Newbury. On heavy going Willie Robinson made the running on “The Big Horse” who was conceding 5Ib to Arkle. Four from home Taaffe moved Arkle almost upsides Willie Robinson, but at the next Arkle over jumped and slipped on landing. Left without any serious rival Mill House went on to win comfortably by eight lengths with Arkle back in third.

Mill House was now at the peak of his powers and his next assignment was the prestigious King George VI Chase at Kempton. In a three runner field Mill House won by twenty lengths. At the age of only six year he had now won three of the of the “Big Four” chases. The Whitbread Gold Cup being the other.

The Eclipse

At this point most jurors would have been firmly on the side of the English Champion when the duo clashed in the Cheltenham Gold Cup just over three months later. Events on Saturday 7 March 1964 were to change the history of National Hunt racing.

Only four horses went to post, with 1960 winner Pas Seul now 11 years old and King’s Nephew making up the numbers. The betting reflected the perceived dominance of Mill House who headed the betting at 8/13 while Arkle was 7/4.

The race followed a similar pattern to the Hennessy with Mill House leading from the start while Arkle, pulling hard, was kept three to four lengths back by Taaffe. However, the Champion was the first to come under pressure when they entered the straight with Robinson going for his whip. Although Mill House battled bravely, Arkle was going much easier. They jumped virtually together at the second last but at the final fence Arkle swept imperiously past him to win by a comfortable five lengths. Pas Seul was left a further 25 lengths behind in 3rd. BBC TV’s Peter O’Sullevan famously said “This was the best we’ve seen for a long time” as the new Champion crossed the line. Walwyn was shocked by the defeat as he had firmly believed Mill House, who had won six times on the trot since his last defeat in November 1962, would confirm the form of late November.

Arkle’s superiority over Mill House was reinforced the next time they clashed in the 1964 Hennessy Gold Cup. Unlike twelve months earlier Arkle carrying 12st 7Ib was conceding 3Ib to Mill House. Taaffe adopted different tactics to Cheltenham in March heading straight to the front alongside his rival. Jump for jump they plotted their way round the Berkshire course like two boxers trading blows in the ring. Could Arkle maintain the pace against the perennial front runner? Yes he could and five from home “The Big Horse” blew up while Arkle cruised home to win by ten lengths with a tired Mill House twenty eight lengths back in 4th place.

Although Mill House won on his next outings, at Newbury (Mandarin Handicap Chase) and Sandown (Gainsborough Chase), Arkle gave him another lesson in the Gold Cup. Mill House battled bravely to stay with the Irish superstar but from the seventh fence he was always behind. The final margin of defeat was twenty lengths.

Early autumn 1965 Mill House was freshened up with two promising runs. Firstly, he was runner up to speedster Dunkirk over two miles at Ascot which preceded a win, albeit in a two horse race, at Sandown. Consequently hopes were high of beating Arkle in the Gallagher Gold Cup over 3 miles at the same course at the beginning of November. Certainly the weights appeared to be in his favour as the Champion was set to carry 16Ib more. Lambourn’s hero had a new partner in the saddle in David Nicholson, who replaced the injured Willie Robinson.

Unfortunately for Mill House, Arkle was about to put on his finest performance. Even though four fences from home Nicholson had galloped four lengths clear of Arkle, Pat Taaffe was unperturbed and skipped past him affording no sympathy to his once great rival. The dual Gold Cup winner broke the course record held by Mill House by seventeen seconds. The once mighty Mill House was humbled, trailing home a beaten horse, twenty four lengths behind in 3rd place after being beaten on the run in by Rondetto. For the ardent followers of Mill House, who had dreamed of revenge it was a crushing blow.

“The Big Horse” was now becoming harder to train, his large frame being more susceptible to injury. However, he did win his next race at Cheltenham in late January, though not in impressive fashion and subsequently strained a tendon in mid-March which meant he missed the 1966 Gold Cup, the scene of Arkle’s hat trick victory.

Approaching 10 years old Mill House was not fit to race again until 10 December in the 2m 4f Massey Ferguson Gold Cup. Not the ideal distance for him, the gelding ran a creditable race to finish 5th though the stable were heartened to see him come home fit and well. A subsequent 3rd place in the Great Yorkshire Handicap Chase at Doncaster and a third win in Ascot’s Gainsborough Chase appeared to show he was back in contention to regain his crown.

Despite his improved form Mill House was beginning to have trouble with his back but he was fit enough to go to post with seven others in the Gold Cup. Sadly for his adoring followers Mill House, the 4/1 second favourite fell at the last open ditch six fences from home. At the time his jockey David Nicholson had him just ahead of the eventual winner Woodland Venture but when asked for a stand back jump for the first time, he couldn’t and crashed badly through the obstacle. It was “TheBig Horse’s” first fall since his jumping debut back in February 1962.

A day in the sun

Five weeks later Mill House was back for the National Hunt season finale at his favourite course, Sandown, for the Whitbread Gold Cup. Mill House had won six of his eight chases at the course. His previous attempt in the race had ended in glorious failure when he finished 2nd behind Dormant, who was in receipt of 42Ib. In heavy ground he had only lost the lead with 50 yards to go and went down by three lengths.

The thirteen runners in 1967 faced a completely different proposition, firm ground. This did not suit Mill House, though the 18,000 crowd would never have noticed. Unlike Cheltenham, his jockey David Nicholson later recorded the gelding had all his old zest, the Champion inside him was back. The field included Gold Cup winner Woodland Venture and third placed What a Myth (a future Gold Cup winner), Kapeno recently 10th in the Foinavon Grand National and Rondetto, who had been caught up in the mayhem at the 23rd fence.

The original race tactics were for Nicholson to wait behind on Mill House for at least the first two miles of the three mile five furlong contest. An exuberant Mill House who seemed to put his ailments aside for the day thought otherwise. After two fences Nicholson could do nothing to hold him back and he strode to the front. From then on the old warrior gave the crowd a jumping exhibition. “I could just about hold him on the flat” said Nicholson “but every time he saw a fence, whoosh, we were gone”

At the end of the first circuit the crowd clapped as the horses passed the stands, the vast majority wishing to see Mill House come home the hero in a few minutes time. Mill House’s only mistake came at the twelfth fence where he hit the fence but pulling hard he was soon back in his stride. He still had close companions but his bold jumping over the three Railway fences left him a length clear of San Angelo ridden by Grand National winning jockey John Buckingham. The buzz in the crowd was growing with every stride as David Nicholson on Mill House asked for a final push. Still responding to his jockey’s encouragement Mill House extended the lead to two lengths as he jumped the second last. A final great leap at the last left Mill House three lengths clear of the chasing pack of San Angelo, Kellsboro Wood and Kapeno. Despite a late rally by the fast finishing Nick Gaselee on Kapeno, Nicholson managed to cajole an exhausted Mill House home to win by one and a half lengths.

It was amazing performance by the old horse and by his masterful trainer Fulke Walwyn who had managed to get Mill House back to his peak notwithstanding his leg and back problems. For the teary eyed crowd there was the pleasure of knowing that one of the greatest ever National Hunt horses had defied the odds and had enjoyed a memorable last day in the spring sunshine.

As Lord Oaksey wrote afterwards “For there’s no doubt at all where Mill House won the Whitbread. He won it in the air, giving from start to finish, a display of sustained, explosive power and agility which can seldom have been equalled and never surely excelled in a steeplechase of this distance”

Into the sunset

After the high of the Whitbread, bedevilled by injury, Fulke Walwyn’s star was off the racecourse for another ten months before he ran 2nd in the Gainsborough Chase. Nevertheless the performance led to him going off as 2/1 favourite for the Cheltenham Gold Cup in a field of only five. Reunited with regular jockey Willie Robinson, Mill House went off in the lead but fell at the fifteenth, the open ditch after the water. Next month returning to the scene of his momentous Whitbread triumph in April 1968 he unseated Robinson at the 13th when handily placed.

“The Big Horse” had two more races a victory at Wincanton in late September 1968 before he fell in the Clun Chase at Ludlow on 9 October. His retirement from racing due to injury was officially announced in January 1970. Mill House died in October 1975.

Ultimately Mill House will always be associated with his nemesis Arkle, though apart from his first victory against him in the 1963 Hennessy Gold Cup he never got his head in front again. Despite that “The Big Horse” remains one of the legendary chasers to have graced the National Hunt game. His long anticipated clash with Arkle in the 1964 Cheltenham Gold Cup could arguably be regarded as the most famous in the race’s history.

Rated 191 a mark only exceeded by Arkle, fellow Irish horse Flyingbolt and Sprinter Sacre his sheer size and his bold jumping throughout the 1960’s made him universally popular amongst the racing public. Perhaps his failures against the mighty Arkle after his own high profile promise in 1963 had created an even warmer affection with racing fans. The public’s adulation reached an emotional high at Sandown Park on the 29 April 1967 when The Big Horse enjoyed that last memorable day in the sun.