IN glorious colour, the legendary Arkle and his rider Pat Taaffe are picture perfect as they leap the last to win the 1964 Hennessy Gold Cup – just one of many highlights in the career of the incomparable horse.
It is also horse and jockey as you have never seen them before. This, after all, was still the era of black and white and now digital technology has been used to turn the iconic picture into colour to mark the race’s 50th anniversary.
The iconic yellow and black colours of Arkle’s owner Anne, Duchess of Westminster, are instantly recognisable as her champion defies top weight of 12st 7lb to win steeplechasing’s showpiece handicap by 10 lengths from Ferry Boat.
This was the year when the equine immortal was approaching the peak of his powers – Arkle began the year by winning the first of his three Cheltenham Gold Cups and rounded off 1964 with King George VI Chase glory at Kempton.
Arkle replicated the same big-race treble 12 months later and the only other horse to pull off the feat in the same calendar year is Jenny Pitman’s Burrough Hill Lad, who did so in 1984. Unlike Arkle, her hero also won Wetherby’s Charlie Hall Chase to boot.
Yet the photo has added poignancy because Arkle carried the hopes of Ireland at a time when many of his faithful followers did not even have televisions.
“It was radio rather than television,” recalled County Wexford-born Ferdy Murphy, who would later saddle Geoff Hubbard’s Sibton Abbey to win the 1992 Hennessy before moving to West Witton, near Middleham.
“Four or five families would gather together and the woman of the house made tea. Arkle’s races were comparable to the Pope coming to Ireland – it was that big. Every man, woman and child knew the race was on and he just took over. Ireland was going through tough times and he gave the whole country a massive boost.
“Ireland stopped for Arkle – and then two hours afterwards while the race was dissected. The same at Mass on a Sunday. There would be about two motor cars outside church, but 50 ponies and traps. All the farmers would gather and talk about the horse.
“With the rivalry between Ireland and England played out by Arkle and Mill House, it was something else. When Arkle picked off Mill House in the 1964 Gold Cup, everyone was cheering and I remember my father saying ‘wait until he past the finishing post’ before shouting. It was incredible. “Looking back, he got a lot of people into racing and it is why Ireland is the centre of the breeding and bloodstock industry. To think one horse made such a difference.”
Trained by Tom Dreaper, whose grandson Tom would later ride for Murphy, Arkle was so superior to his rivals that the handicapping system had to be changed to give his rivals a fairer chance.
Even this was not sufficient to deter the champion at Newbury in 1964 when he conceded two-and-a-half stone to the eventual runner-up Ferry Boat.
Galloping down the back straight for the final time, Arkle appeared to break his rival Mill House’s heart as he took up the running rather than biding his time to optimise his finishing speed.
Yet the jockey had no choice. “I let him dictate the tactics, absolutely confident that he would pick the right ones,” said Taaffe.
“So when he went to the front jumping alongside Mill House, I made no effort to check him. I am sure that he wanted to prove that he could outjump this king of jumpers and establish his own supremacy.”
This peerless performance explains why the Newbury executive asked digital expert Jordan Lloyd to bring the photo back to life. He explained: “We can now exert an unprecedented level of control when adding colour. Using research as a reference, we paint in the detail, layer by layer.
“The number of layers aids the perception of realism, and we also adjust for how lighting conditions would affect the colour on various surfaces as well as atmospheric conditions.”
As for the aforementioned Murphy, who now trains in Senonnes, France, where he also buys and sells horses, his Hennessy triumph was totally different – the Adrian Maguire-ridden Sibton Abbey crept into the bottom of the handicap off 10 stone and this enabled him to get the better of Peter Beaumont’s high-class Jodami, who then reversed the form off level weights in the following year’s Gold Cup.
“He wasn’t as good as Arkle!” recalled Murphy, who believes Alan King’s Smad Place has the right profile to win today’s Hennessy.
“Sibton Abbey was then fifth to Jodami in the Gold Cup, but the ground had gone firm. With soft ground, he could have won a Gold Cup. It was way too fast for him. But he won a Hennessy and that gives you enormous satisfaction when you look back at what Arkle did.
“Since then, only Burrough Hill Lad and Denman twice have won the Hennessy off top weight – and they weren’t saddled with 12st 7lb. That’s how good Arkle was in 1964 when he won the race at a canter.”