In the history of the Cheltenham Gold Cup, which was first run, as a steeplechase, in 1924, just four horses – Golden Miller, Cottage Rake, Arkle and Best Mate – have won the race three years running. All four have carved their names, indelibly, into Cheltenham Festival history, but none more so than Arkle, whose domination of the best horses of his day, in the mid-1960s, made him a national hero in his native Ireland. Even today, nearly five decades after his untimely death, at the age of thirteen, in 1970, Arkle is the yardstick by which all other steeplechasers are judged.
Owned by Anne Grosvenor, Duchess of Westminster and trained by Tom Dreaper in Co. Dublin, Arkle had already won what is now the RSA Insurance Novices’ Chase at the Cheltenham Festival in 1963 before he lined up for his first attempt at the ‘Blue Riband’ event the following year. On that occasion, the pick of the opposition was the reigning champion, Mill House – arguably the best British steeplechaser since Golden Miller but still, ultimately, rated 21lb inferior to Arkle, according to Timeform – who was sent off 8/13 favourite to retain his title. Patiently ridden by Pat Taaffe, Arkle drew alongside long-time leader at the second-last fence, took a length lead at the last and sprinted clear to win by 5 lengths; his winning time, of 6 minutes 45.6 seconds, smashed the course record.
Arkle and Mill House reopposed in the Cheltenham Gold Cup in 1965, but this time Arkle was sent off favourite, at prohibitive odds of 30/100, to confirm the form. He did so with aplomb, effortlessly sprinting clear in the closing stages to win by 20 lengths, with Mill House toiling in his wake. Mill House missed the 1966 Cheltenham Gold Cup with tendon trouble but, by that stage, Arkle was considered so far superior to his four rivals that he was sent off the shortest-priced favourite in the history of the race, at 1/10. Arkle gave his supporters an anxious moment when ploughing through the fence in front of the stands on the first circuit, but maintained his rhythm and eventually cantered home 30 lengths clear of his nearest pursuer, Dormant.