“I haven’t seen a crowd this big in Ashbourne since Johnny Logan came home after winning the Eurovision”.
High praise indeed and the size of the crowd gathered in the County Meath town took everyone by surprise. The weather was perfect, as it should have been as every member of the Arkle committee had sold his or her soul to make sure it would be, and there was a great atmosphere. It was Arkle’s birthday, Easter Saturday on 19th April 2014, the sun was shining and something big was happening.
The statue had been installed on the Thursday before and covered in a veil in the famous colours of the Duchess and the town was decked out in yellow and black bunting. The site where the statue stood was like a parade ring and was ten deep the whole way around. People took up position at windows in overlooking buildings and we were ready to go.
The Garda band struck up nice and early and kept everyone busy until our MC racing commentator Dessie Cahill was introduced by Ashbourne man and LMFM personality PJ Moran. Dessie spoke with Arkle’s trainer’s son, Jim Dreaper, with Tom Taaffe, Arkle’s jockey’s son, with sculptress Emma MacDermott, and with Andrew Clowes, president of the Duchess of Westminster’s Charity. Sir Peter O Sullevan, one of the most famous names and voices in racing who had commentated on Arkle’s Cheltenham Gold Cup victories, could not be at the unveiling but sent his very best wishes read aloud by Dessie.
Alison Baker, whose mother Mary had bred Arkle, was celebrating her 94th birthday the next day, and didn’t get away without a presentation and a rendition of Happy Birthday.
A quick chat with Arkle’s work rider and his groom, Paddy Woods and Johnny Lumley, and with committee secretary Lynsey Dreaper and we were ready for the off. As the committee made their way from the stage to the statue, the closing stages of the 1964 Cheltenham Gold Cup commentary was played over the speakers with Sir Peter O Sullevan’s voice ringing out.
Jim Dreaper and Tom Taaffe took up position at either end of the statue and waited for the nod to unveil. As the site was formerly the Ward Union hunt yard, huntsman Pat Coyle sounded the hunting horn and the Garda Band followed with a drum roll. Then there was an agonising 20 seconds of tug-o-war between the veil and the wind with Tom and Jim in a supporting role! Dessie Cahill, not one to miss a trick, came out with “He’s like Paddy Woods, can’t get the colours off him!” and then the wind played ball and the veil lifted to a cheer that seems to follow Arkle wherever he goes.
The rest is a blur of Simply the Best being played by the Garda Band, lots of cameras clicking and a general melee around the statue for a long while afterwards. It was perfect and the more of an audience he had, the taller Arkle stood.