If, like your correspondent, you were born too late to see Arkle in the flesh, it’s hard to grasp just how famous he was in his heyday. His extraordinary race record – he won 22 of his 26 steeplechases, against the best horses of his day – speaks for itself, but he had an aura about him, which transcended the world of horse racing and made him an icon of popular culture.
In fact, in 1966, Arkle was voted the most popular personality of the year, ahead of Bobby Moore and The Beatles, in a poll conducted by TV Times magazine. Notwithstanding his questionable Timeform rating of 212, which is 19lb superior to any other steeplechaser, bar his stable companion, Flybolt, since the mid-1960s, even today, the mere mention of his name inspires awe and admiration.
Bred by Mary Baker in Co. Meath, was sired by the classically bred, but moderate, Archive out of Bright Cherry, a top two-mile ‘chaser in Ireland. Bought as a three-year-old by local trainer Tom Dreaper on behalf of Anne Grosvenor, Duchess of Westminster, the horse later revered simply as “Himself” made his racecourse debut in the Lough Ennel Plate at Mullingar, Co. Westmeath in December 1961.
Arkle won twice over hurdles in his novice season, including on his debut over the smaller obstacles at Navan in January, but between the start of the 1962/63 season and the end of his career, in December 1966, won 25 of his 29 races and over £95,000 in prize money. Ridden exclusively by Pat Taafe during that period, his notable victories included the Cheltenham Gold Cup in 1964, 1965 and 1966, the Irish Grand National in 1964, the Hennessy Gold Cup in 1964 and 1965, the Whitbread Gold Cup and the King George VI in 1965. His four defeats included his final start, in the King George VI Chase in 1966, in which he fractured his coffin, or pedal, bone, but still finished second.