100 greatest races: The top ten: Arkle v Mill House; `In no race has the mantle of supremacy passed from one great champion to another so decisively' John Randall illustrates the significance of the 1964 Cheltenham Gold Cup, rightly considered to be one of the greatest races ever.
THE 1964 Cheltenham Gold Cup was a defining moment in racing history, involving two great horses, each carrying the hopes of a nation, with the supreme champion emerging victorious.
In a race that fully lived up to its huge build-up, Arkle, Ireland's rising star, served notice for the first time that he was the greatest steeplechaser who ever lived by dethroning Mill House, Britain's reigning champion.
The seven-year-olds had both triumphed at the Cheltenham Festival 12 months before. Arkle proved himself the champion novice by cantering away with the Broadway (now Royal & SunAlliance) Chase by 20 lengths, and two days later Mill House was hailed as the best young chaser since Golden Miller when winning the Gold Cup by 12 lengths.
They met for the first time in the Hennessy Gold Cup at Newbury in November 1963, when the Fulke Walwyn-trained Mill House gave 5lb to Tom Dreaper's Arkle and beat him just over eight lengths into third place.
Most pundits accepted that result as a fair reflection of their merits, without realising that Arkle had a genuine excuse. He had jumped the third- last well, only to slither in the mud on landing, thus losing much of his momentum. Nor could anyone have predicted that he had so much improvement in him.
The Hennessy result, and Arkle's mishap, meant that the two camps on either side of the Irish Sea were optimistic in the run-up to the eagerly anticipated rematch in the Gold Cup, especially as the principals were unbeaten in the interim. Mill House won the King George VI and Gainsborough Chases, and Arkle's three victories included the Thyestes and Leopardstown Chases. Both seemed to have the jumping world at their feet.
The England v Ireland rivalry had extra edge because Walwyn had beaten Dreaper into second place in the two previous Gold Cups, with Mandarin and Mill House both proving too good for Fortria.
Mill House started at odds of 8-13 for a Gold Cup double, with Arkle at 7-4. They scared away all but two rivals in the only renewal of the race to be run on a Saturday since 1947.
One rival was Pas Seul, winner of the Gold Cup in 1960 and a great champion at his best, but now a light of other days; the other was King's Nephew, conqueror of Mill House the previous season and now fresh from a triumph under top weight in the Great Yorkshire Chase. Neither made any impact on the proceedings. There was a snow flurry just before the race, but the sun was shining and visibility was perfect when the flag fell.
Mill House went straight into the lead and stayed there for three miles. Arkle was soon in second place, but he pulled hard in the early stages and gave Pat Taaffe an uncomfortable ride for a while.
Neither horse made a significant mistake, and the race started in earnest when Arkle, who had never allowed the gap to grow to more than four lengths, moved closer on the downhill run to the third-last. The two were both going strongly at the penultimate fence, which Mill House jumped on the inside fractionally in front, but on the home turn Willie Robinson began to use the whip on him. The response was generous but inadequate, and the issue was settled in a matter of strides.
With Taaffe also employing the whip, though sparingly, Arkle jumped the final fence a length in front and, showing a turn of speed that his rival lacked, galloped up the hill full of running to score by five lengths in a stunning display of sheer class. Pas Seul was 25 lengths behind in third.
Peter O'Sullevan said at the climax of his BBC commentary: "Arkle going away now from Mill House. This is the champion, this is the best we've seen for a long time, Arkle is the winner of the Gold Cup . . . I have never heard such cheers from the stands at Cheltenham as Arkle proves himself the champion chaser in the British Isles."
Taaffe said: "I knew we had it won three fences out, when I was still behind." Many years later his owner, Anne Duchess of Westminster, was asked which was the greatest of Arkle's victories, and she replied: "The first Cheltenham Gold Cup, when he beat Mill House - it was so exciting."
In no race has the mantle of supremacy passed from one great champion to another more decisively, and `Himself' was mobbed as he returned to the winner's enclosure - by British fans as well as Irish, for greatness transcends national loyalties.
Fulke Walwyn was thunderstruck - not surprisingly, as his paragon had lost despite running the race of his life. Willie Robinson thought the result might have been different if he had not had to make the running, but he was clutching at straws.
This was the first of four meetings the pair had after their initial Hennessy clash, and on each occasion Arkle took handsome revenge. In the 1964 Hennessy, he made nearly all the running and beat Mill House (received 3lb) by 28 lengths into fourth place. In the 1965 Gold Cup he led from start to finish and cantered home 20 lengths clear of his rival.
Their last encounter came in the Gallaher Gold Cup at Sandown in November 1965. Arkle conceded 16lb to Mill House and beat him by 24 lengths into third place, shattering both the latter's course record and any hope that the `Big Horse' could ever regain his title.
Strictly on form, Arkle's win in the 1964 Gold Cup would have made him the greatest steeplechaser ever seen up to that point (replacing Easter Hero) even if he had never run again. Little did any of us realise that his performance graph was still on a steep upward curve that in the next two years would take him into realms previously undreamt of.
Superlatives became inadequate as, in majestic, swaggering, ruthless style, he easily defied 12st in the Irish Grand National and 12st 7lb in the Hennessy (twice), Whitbread and other handicaps, taking the glory that had seemed destined for Mill House. He displayed outstanding pace, stamina, jumping ability and courage under crushing burdens, never falling and always giving his best.
Had Arkle not been injured in his prime, he would have eclipsed Golden Miller's record of five Gold Cup victories, but that would merely have altered the wording of his story, not its magnitude.
The 1964 Cheltenham Gold Cup defies the laws of perspective: the further it recedes into history, the greater it appears.
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Race 1 1964 Cheltenham Gold Cup
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Tomorrow: Brough Scott on the 1973 Grand National
Cheltenham Gold Cup March 7, 1964
1. Arkle 7-4
2. Mill House 8-13f
3. Pas Seul 50-1
Winning owner: Anne Duchess of Westminster Trainer: Tom Dreaper Jockey: Pat Taaffe Distances: 5l, 25l
Also ran: King's Nephew (4th). 4 ran.
Arkle lands over the final fence ahead of Mill House before drawing away up the hill to beat his great rival by five lengths and post a victory that changed the face of the sport
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|Publication:||The Racing Post (London, England)|
|Date:||Jan 31, 2005|
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