50th anniversary book recalls the legend of Arkle, the greatest Cheltenham Gold Cup winner

This week's Cheltenham Festival marks the 50th anniversary of the first Gold Cup victory achieved in a hat-trick of wins by the brilliant Irish steeplechaser, Arkle, a horse widely acknowledged as the greatest ever to race under National Hunt rules.

Arkle, trained in County Meath by the late Tom Dreaper, won the Cheltenham Gold Cup three times (1964, 1965 and 1966) and the Hennessy Gold Cup twice as well as the King George VI Chase, the Whitbread Gold Cup and the Irish Grand National.

Despite regularly conceding vast weight to rivals in handicaps, he was beaten only four times in 26 steeplechases. It would doubtless have been more had he not been injured in the 1966 'King George' at Kempton Park, after which he was retired, at the age of only nine years.

He was ranked by the Timeform organisation as the best steeplechaser of all time, with a rating of 212 – 20 pounds superior to the current jumping superstar Sprinter Sacre. Kauto Star, who won the Cheltenham Gold Cup in 2007 and 2008, was rated a mere 191.

Peter O'Sullevan, the great BBC commentator, who celebrated his 96th birthday earlier this month, described him as “the best we’ve seen for a long time” as he described the finish of the 1964 race, when he sprinted away from Mill House, the defending champion and previously unbeaten, after the final fence.

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That moment and other great memories are described in Sean Magee's Arkle: The Story of the World’s Greatest Steeplechaser, which has been re-released in a 50th anniversary edition.

Mill House himself had been seen as the best since Golden Miller won five Gold Cups in the 1930s but in the 1964 race was made to look relatively ordinary by Arkle, who had been beaten by Mill House in Newbury’s Hennessy Cognac Gold Cup the previous autumn after a mid-race jumping mistake, which led bookmakers to make Mill House favourite.

Magee's story recalled that it seemed Mill House would prevail again as his jockey, Willie Robinson, established a lead in a four-horse race that Arkle did not appear to be reducing as the rivals approached the third-last fence.

But Arkle’s jockey Pat Taaffe unleashed his mount's speed at just the right moment and as they arrived at the second-last they were almost upsides.  At the final obstacle, Arkle was in front for the first time and though Mill House tried to battle back, Arkle found another gear and finished so strongly up the hill to the winning post he broke the course record time by four seconds.

The following year he beat Mill House again, this time by 20 lengths and came home in 1966 as the shortest-priced Gold Cup favourite ever, at odds of 1-10.  With Mill House absent this time, Arkle won by a staggering 30 lengths.

Arkle: The Story of the World's Greatest Steeplechaser 50th Anniversary Edition, by Sean Magee, is published by Racing Post Books.

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Ian Redford: A tragic end to a tragic life for the Scottish footballer only weeks after telling his harrowing story

Ian Herbert wrote a moving column in The Independent the other day reflecting on the life and premature death of the footballer Ian Redford, who played for six clubs in Scotland and, in England, for Ipswich Town.  He made more than 200 appearances for Rangers and scored the winning goal for Dundee United against Borussia Monchengladbach in the semi final of the Uefa Cup semi final in 1987.

Redford, who struggled with depression after the end of his playing career, was found dead in a woodland area near his home in Irvine, Ayrshire, in January this year.  He was 53.

Last autumn, his autobiography, entitled Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head, was published by Black and White Publishing, a Scottish publisher specialising in books about Scotland or Scottish people.  He had written every word himself.

The first draft, he recalled in his introduction, ran to more than 200,000 words, such was his drive to set down every detail. It was, he said, an enormously cathartic process, enabling him to express in words many of the feelings until then he had been inclined to suppress.

It was in places a pretty harrowing tale.  Redford's life, in many ways, was been a triumph in the face of adversity.  Born with a genetic defect that rendered him completely deaf in one ear while still a small child and with a level of hearing in the other that declined as he grew older, he was warned to avoid contact sports for fear of making his condition worse.

He ignored the advice and against the odds was able to forge a pretty successful career, despite his handicap.  He was never able to participate fully in the dressing room banter that is often key to being accepted into a team. On the field, where keen hearing is not so vital as good vision but an important tool nonetheless, he had to work particularly hard.

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If that were not enough, Redford carried with him the indelible memory of a childhood tragedy, having lost his younger brother, Douglas, to leukemia.  Ian was only 12 at the time, his grief made all the more difficult to bear because his parents had always kept from him the full seriousness of his brother's illness.  It shattered what might have been an idyllic upbringing on the family farm in Perth.

In his book, Redford was clear that the guilt, anger and sense of betrayal he suffered contributed to the dark days later in life when he battled against depression and struggled to keep a drink problem under control.

Yet, after a period working as a players' agent and playing some golf, he seemed to be settled into a new life organising fishing and shooting holidays in Scotland.  He was married with three children, one of whom, also called Ian, plays golf professionally.

It was hoped that giving voice to his feelings about all that had happened to him in his book, published only a few weeks before his death, would have helped him sustain his apparent recovery.  Sadly, this seems not to have been the case.

Read Ian Herbert's column from The Independent

Buy Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head: My Autobiography, by Ian Redford, from Amazon, Waterstones or WHSmith.


After 75 years, tennis great Rod Laver at last admits he has a story worth telling


Given that barely a sniff of success is justification for an autobiography in today's commercially-driven world, it is extraordinary that one of tennis's all-time great players has taken until his 75th year to get around to telling his story.

Rod Laver: A Memoir, published in Australia last year by Pan Macmillan, is due to appear in UK book shops in June this year.

The publisher described the book as an inspiring story of how the diminutive, left-handed, red-headed country boy became one of Australia's greatest sporting champions, a dominant force in world tennis for almost two decades.  Among more than 200 singles titles Laver won -- a record unsurpassed -- was the unique achievement of winning the Grand Slam twice, in 1962 and 1969.

Laver's nature was always to be modest, however, which might explain why he never felt compelled to remind everyone of what he had done in a full autobiography.  A humble man, he said he an interview only last year that he still regrets his behaviour at the US Open in 1969, when he jumped the net in his moment of triumph, forgetting first to shake the hand of his opponent, Tony Roche.

The Rockhampton Rocket, as he became known, lived from his mid-20s in California, having married an American girl, but has become a regular visitor to the Australian Open in Melbourne, where the centre court is named in his honour.

Asked why he had decided, 37 years after his retirement from the full-time circuit, finally to commit his memories to print, he said simply that "it seemed like the right time."

Reviewers of the book in Australia were particularly fascinated with the stories Laver tells of what for him were the wilderness years between the two Grand Slams, when the majority of leading players chose to join the professional circuit and were barred from playing in the Grand Slam tournaments as tennis clung to its amateur traditions.

During that time Laver was US professional champion three times as well as winning the French pro title in 1967, during which year he won his fourth UK title at the Wembley Pro tournament, which was held at what was then called the Empire Pool (now the Wembley Arena) on a wooden surface erected on top of a drained swimming pool.

In between those 'majors' the circuit was far from glamorous, the pros moving from one venue to another, spending almost as much time on the road as on the court, staying in modest hotels in small towns, playing on portable courts that had to be adapted for use in ice rinks and basketball courts, yet still managing to play scintillating tennis and paving the way for the huge rewards the current leading players enjoy.

The 2014 crop of tennis books also includes a number of titles from New Chapter Press, whose managing partners include the former US Tennis Association executive Randy Walker.

And another tennis veteran, the now 82-year-old coach Nick Bolletieri, tells his life story in Changing The Game, in which among other things he discusses his 10 champions, eight wives and seven children.  It is due out in April.

On a slightly more niche note, in July the US tennis writer Sandra Harwitt, who contributes to ESPN's tennis coverage and writes also for the Miami Herald, offers The Greatest Jewish Tennis Players of All Time, which includes features and biographies of such figures from the circuit as former Wimbledon champion Dick Savitt, fellow American stars Harold Solomon and Brian Gottfried and the "Flying Dutchman", Tom Okker.

An updated version of The Bud Collins History of Tennis is also due in the summer.

John Barrett's epic Wimbledon: The Official History, which was updated only last year - 12 years after its first re-release in 2001 as an updated version of the 1986 celebration of 100 Wimbledons -  undergoes another revision to take account of Andy Murray's historic Wimbledon triumph, with Vision Sports Publishing setting a September publication date.

John Blake Publishing, meanwhile, has three biographies in its catalogue.  In May, look out for former News of the World journalist Tina Campanella's biography of Laura Robson, and Novak Djokovic: The Sporting Statesman, by Chris Bowers.

Bowers, who has written biographies of Roger Federer and, in the political arena, of deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, writes about Djokovic both as a tennis player and an iconic figure in Serbia's quest to establish its identity after the break-up of the former Yugoslavia.

In June, Tom Oldfield's biography of Rafa Nadal is re-issued in updated form.

Kevin Mitchell, the Guardian and Observer sports writer who has written some critically acclaimed books about boxing, turns his attention to tennis in Break Point: The Inside Story of Modern Tennis, which focuses on the all-powerful quartet of Federer, Nadal, Djokovic and Murray at a time when their grip on the men's game is threatened by a new generation of hungry young stars.  Published by John Murray, it is due to hit the shelves in May.

Last but not least, John McPhee's Levels of the Game, an extraordinary work that examined human behaviour, race, politics and the social divisions in America through the prism of a single tennis match, between Arthur Ashe and Clark Graebner, is published in Britain for the first time by Aurum Press in June.

Levels of the Game was hailed as the best tennis book ever written and 'the height of American sports journalism' when it was first published in the United States in 1970.

For details of these titles and more tennis books, visit Amazon, Waterstones or WHSmith.