Sports do not build character. They reveal it
– Heywood Hale Broun
Who was the greatest sports character of the last century? Depends on the sport you are keen on as to how that question is answered. A cricket fan would undoubtedly point to Don Bradman; a snooker fan to Joe Davis; a tennis aficionado to Rod Laver or, perhaps, Margaret Court; a golf enthusiast to Jack Nicklaus or Arnold Palmer; a football fanatic to − well, in a nation where Wee Jinky, Slim Jim, Wee Willie, King Kenny and umpteen others all reigned, we will not go there; a boxing follower would certainly name Muhammed Ali, perhaps with a backward glance to the legendary Jack Johnson.
But there is one true champion that, in terms of his character, in terms of his sporting ability and legacy, in terms of his dominance of his contemporaries, and in terms of his achievements even compared to those of his successors, stands out a mile – by many lengths to be more exact. And that sporting personality is Arkle, the greatest racehorse of all time.
Although born in County Meath in Ireland, Arkle does have a slight Scottish connection. His owner, Anne Grosvenor, Duchess of Westminster, named him after the mountain in Sutherland that is sited on her Sutherland estate. His list of wins and the impressive fashion in which he won, hardly need relating. He was the highest rated steeplechaser ever. Only his stable companion, Flying Bolt, came anywhere near him.
Perhaps unfairly, the Irish racing authorities paid him a back-handed tribute when they set up two weighting systems for races – one to be used for Arkle and another for every other horse. It did not matter much, despite how he was weighted, he won anyway. In the Irish Grand National of 1964, he won by only one length – but, then, he was carrying over two-and-a-half-stones more than his nearest rival. Once, it did make a difference. Giving a massive 35 pounds to Stalbridge Colonist in the 1966 Hennessy Gold Cup, he came second by only half-a-length.
Arkle's major wins (with the great jockey, Pat Taaffe, on his back) appear never-ending compared to those of other horses. A gentle horse (he would take children on his back for a ride), apart from the Irish Grand National, he won the Cheltenham Gold Cup in 1964, 1965, and 1966 (breaking course records by substantial margins as he did so); he won the Hennessy Gold Cup in 1964 and 65; he won the King George VI Chase; he won the Leopardstown Chase...
One race he never won was the Aintree Grand National. And that was because he was never entered for it. The Duchess of Westminster considered him too valuable to be risked in such a race and had reservations about the race itself. Back in the 1950s and 1960s, the frequency with which horses died or were injured in the Grand National was high. It is still unacceptably high today, with the last Grand National fatality being in 2019, although two other horses died at the same Aintree meeting going over almost the same course.
Certainly, the death toll has dropped in the Grand National over recent years and that has much to do with the improvements being made to the course and the jumps. But it is still too much of a risk. The standards of entry for a horse are hardly Arkle standards. Arkle had the highest ever rating of 212 whereas the Grand National (a lowly grade three event) accepts horses rated 'above 120' that are at least seven years old and have placed in a previous three-mile race. That leaves the field pretty open and many owners simply enter their horse for the prestige involved in having a runner in the Grand National or because of the gamble that they may, with luck, end up sharing some of the huge prize money (over £1 million, with the winner netting over half that amount).
Up to 40 horses can enter the four-mile, two-and-a-half-furlong race and face jumping 30 fences, some of them the stiffest in steeplechasing. Given the size of the field and the standard set for entry, it is little wonder that the race has had as high a number of fatalities – and why, on the whole, high quality horses like Arkle avoid it.
This is not an argument for banning the Grand National (as some advocate) but an argument for raising the standard of entry, limiting the entrant number to a more manageable size, and reviewing the amount, heights and disposition of the fences. It is an occasion at present − with offices organising sweepstakes, house-husbands rushing to find out how to place bets, and the nation gripped watching it all unfold on television. But our entertainment cannot be at the expense of animals suffering.
Yes, horses do die in other races and there are other issues – such as the use of the whip; but, compared to the Grand National, the incidence of fatalities is low – and, in any event, the Grand National is the major horse racing event. In fairness to horse racing, most horses appear to enjoy the run and they are generally well taken care of; they are expensive animals after all. After their racing days are over, many enjoy a good retirement but for others it is another story; but that is a separate but related issue. Getting the Grand National up to an acceptable level is the first step. We can do that by spreading the word and by refusing to wager on it.
A linked digression: the 1970 film Waterloo
featured Rod Steiger and Jack Hawkins and purported to relate the tale of the Battle of Waterloo. In the actual battle well over 20,000 horses died; on the film set over 100 died. The film was shot in the then Soviet Russia; both to save costs and because that nation did not have effective animal cruelty laws.
We owe it to our own humanity, if we are to use animals for our entertainment it cannot be at an unnecessary and unacceptable risk to those animals. Sport and entertainment must reveal our character, not as self-centred, self-interested creatures but as thoughtful and caring ones − like Arkle was.
Before I leave you, the Scottish Grand National is due to be run at the magnificent Ayr Race Course on Saturday 17 April. So, here are my tips: Lucinda Russell is one of Britain's top trainers (she is based in Kinross) and, all being well, she will have Mighty Thunder and Big River racing − guided by the skilful hands of up-and-coming jockey Blair Campbell and top jockey Derek Fox. Worth a shout, both of them. But remember, neither horse is an Arkle.
Bill Paterson is a writer based in Glasgow