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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.

Buy from Amazon, WHSmith or Waterstones.

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