In the Sunday edition of the Racing Post – in winter, God’s own newspaper – the great and the good of racing are asked to reveal certain aspects of themselves. The reader cannot argue if the favourite film of jockey A is Reservoir Dogs, while jockey B prefers Bridget Jones’ Diary. But when asked Kauto Star or Arkle? That is how the question is framed, which allows for ambiguity. Is the question supposed to reveal which is interviewee’s favourite of the two or the best? I suspect the latter.
Of course the young get the answer wrong and those of a similar vintage to myself always answer correctly.
In our awe and admiration for Arkle, though, we must not take anything away from Kauto. He remains undoubtedly the second best steeplechaser of all time, and in being the second best steeplechaser of all time he is the second best racehorse of all time.
I acknowledge that Kauto raced for longer than Arkle, though that was determined by fate, and the sheer number of Grade 1 races he won will perhaps never be bettered. What is it? 5 King George Chases, 4 Betfairs, 2 Gold Cups, plus a Tingle Creek and a whole host of other top races. And perhaps no horse has been better loved by the public.
When I am on my deathbed, sad as this might seem for people who live a more extended lifestyle than my own, the memories that will help ease the crossing to the other side will be Red Rum’s third National, his first, though mainly for Crisp, Desert Orchid winning his Gold Cup, Sprinter Sacre winning his second 2-Mile Champion Chase and the crowd cheering him from the top of the hill all the way back to Lambourn, and Kauto Star winning his fourth Betfair. Faith restored. Fools to doubt him or Paul Nicholls. I will also always remember his first Betfair, with Ruby grinning from ear-to-ear, seemingly from the second last to the winning post.
But Arkle is Arkle. Or ‘Himself’ as he reverentially known in his homeland.
When the Paul Nicholls of his day, Fulke Walwynn was asked who the best horse he ever trained was without giving it a second thought he said Mill House. Yet Arkle was superior to the big horse by nearly a stone. It is said Arkle broke Mill House’s heart. To this day Arkle holds the 3-mile course record at Sandown, carrying top weight and conceding stones not pounds to his pursuers. It became so impossible to frame handicaps for races with Arkle entered that the Irish handicapper was forced to issue to 2 handicaps for the Irish Grand National, one to be used if Arkle ran and the other if he didn’t, otherwise it was Arkle 12st 7lbs, the rest, from second best horse to worst, bottom weight. There was no long handicap in those days.
It is argued that Arkle’s sky-high official rating was the result of giving huge amounts of weight away to inferior horses in handicaps, which of course Tom Dreaper was forced to do as condition chases were unheard of in Arkle’s time outside of the Gold Cup and King George. These inferior horses would go on in Arkle’s absence to win or nearly win Gold Cups.
No, young ‘uns, you have it wrong. And for posterity it must written in gold lettering somewhere that Arkle is and always will be the greatest. Arkle is the god of steeplechasing.
All my life I have waited for a horse to challenge Arkle’s supremacy. You see, I was young when ‘Himself’ was racing and wet behind the ears. I was in the Mill House camp and just didn’t appreciate the magnitude of what I was witnessing. Briefly, during that season when he won the Hennessey and the Gold Cup, I thought Denman was to be the second coming. When he won the race at Newbury now named in his honour I remember thinking this is what it must have been like watching Arkle. I have a similar memory of watching Paul McCartney going amongst musicians as they learned his orchestral piece ‘Standing Stone’ and thinking this is what Mozart would have done. But the heart condition done for Denman and he became, though he remains my favourite of all time, a plucky bit-part player to his mate Kauto.
Although every trainer would give his right arm for a horse with the ability and will-to-win of Kauto Star, they would give both arms for a horse like Arkle.
When the time comes, and I’m on my deathbed, and the nurse reading the Racing Post to me quotes Paul Nicholls claiming to have a horse better than Kauto, I won’t hold my breath, though the prospect of seeing another great pretender to the crown might encourage me to breathe on for a wee bit longer.
Keith Knight is a workaday writer of fiction, worker in the real world but foremost a horse racing fanatic. The joy of the sport is the horse - all horses.