Flyingbolt

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Flyingbolt
Sire Airborne
Grandsire Precipitation
Dam Eastlock
Damsire Easton
Sex Gelding
Foaled 1959
Country Great Britain
Colour Chestnut
Breeder Mr. R.E. Way
Owner Mrs. T.G. Wilkinson
Trainer Tom Dreaper (in Ireland)
Record 34: 18-3-6
25:12-3-5 (chases)
6:4-0-1 (hurdles)
3:2-0-0 (flat)
Major wins
Irish Grand National (1966)
Queen Mother Champion Chase (1966)
Arkle Challenge Trophy (1965)
Massey Ferguson Gold Cup (1965)
Black & White Whisky Gold Cup (1965)
Awards
Timeform Rating: 210

Flyingbolt was a famous racehorse. Officially he is the second best National Hunt racehorse of all time, after Arkle, but he is not nearly as well known as his rival. Flyingbolt's racing career was dogged by illness and injury but at his best he was a horse of the highest class. It is very difficult to compare horses who never actually raced against each other, but a comparison of their merits is probably best illustrated by the Official Steeplechase Handicapper who at the end of the 1965-1966 season rated Arkle the superior by only 1 lb (0.5 kg).[clarification needed] Timeform, the highly respected racing publication, had a difference of 2 lbs between them. As a hurdler, Flyingbolt was the best Tom Dreaper ever trained. His wins included the Gloucestershire Hurdle at Cheltenham (now the Supreme Novices' Hurdle) and the Scalp Hurdle at Leopardstown (now the Irish Champion Hurdle) as well as finishing third in the Champion Hurdle at Cheltenham whilst Arkle never competed beyond handicap level in that sphere. Unfortunately the two never raced against one another, mainly because they were both trained by the same man and he preferred to keep them apart.

Background[edit]

Flyingbolt was born in 1959 in unusual circumstances. His sire Airborne, the 1946 Derby winner, was believed to have become completely impotent and local man Robert Way gave him a home on his small stud farm where he housed a few mares of his own. In the belief that Airborne was incapable of breeding, Way put him into a paddock as a companion for the 19-year-old Eastlock, a barren mare who had been unable to conceive the previous year. However, she took a liking to the supposedly impotent Airborne, and the outcome was a chestnut colt born the following year. Way sold him as a foal at the Newmarket December Sales for 210 guineas to Larry Ryan from Co. Clare in Ireland. After winning in the show ring as a yearling, Ryan offered him for sale that autumn at the Ballsbridge sales in Dublin through the Rathmore Stud owned by six-time Irish champion jockey Martin Molony. He was bought by George Ponsonby for 490 guineas. Ponsonby had already purchased a number of top performers who went into training with Tom Dreaper. This one did likewise and was passed on to Mrs T.G. Wilkinson who combined both his sire (Airborne) and dam (Eastlock) to give him the name Flyingbolt.

Racing career[edit]

Early career[edit]

Flyingbolt made his racecourse debut on 13 May 1963 in a flat race over 12 furlongs at Leopardstown. Starting at 20/1, he finished down the field. He was still immature and needed more time to fill into his massive frame so he was turned out into a field for the summer. His run at Leopardstown would turn out to be his only defeat for the next two and a half years.

He re-appeared at Navan on 9 October 1963 when winning a national hunt flat race by 7 lengths at odds of 8/11 in the hands of top amateur Alan Lillingston. Coincidentally, Arkle won his only ever flat race on the same card just half an hour earlier. After winning his next start on the flat at Leopardstown by 4 lengths with Liam McLoughlin in the saddle, Flyingbolt was switched to hurdles the following month, easily winning his maiden at the Leopardstown Christmas meeting where he was ridden in public for the first time by stable jockey Pat Taaffe who rode him in all of his jump races whilst in the care of Dreaper. He then won the Killester Hurdle at Baldoyle, followed by another facile success in the Scalp Hurdle at Leopardstown, as described by author and journalist, Ivor Herbert; "Flyingbolt, two years Arkle's junior, won the Scalp Hurdle in a canter. What made this astonishing was that the five-year-old was beating older experienced high-class hurdlers on worse terms than in a handicap. It was suddenly evident that Dreaper had not only Ireland's top three mile chaser, but, in the two years younger horse, the best novice hurdler either side of the Irish Sea." From there Flyingbolt headed to Cheltenham where he easily won the Gloucestershire Hurdle, consolidating his position as the top novice hurdler in Britain and Ireland. Later that same week, Arkle beat Mill House to win the first of his 3 consecutive Cheltenham Gold Cups.

Chasing career[edit]

Flyingbolt was sent chasing in the autumn of 1964. He won all 5 of his starts, including the 2-mile Champion Novice Chase at Cheltenham (formerly the Cotswold Chase, now the Arkle Challenge Trophy) and his final start at Fairyhouse, where he carried 12 st 2 lbs to victory, giving the second horse 37 lbs. His superiority was such that he started at odds-on in all of his races that season.

Flyingbolt made his seasonal re-appearance in a handicap hurdle at the Phoenix Park on 2 October 1965, where he finished 4th when conceding 28 lbs and upwards to his rivals. Although he was beaten for the first time in more than two years, the race was primarily a warm-up event prior to the resumption of his chasing career, a sphere in which he remained unbeaten. That season, Flyingbolt won all six of his chases, ranging in distance from 2 miles to 3 and a quarter miles. He began with a victory in the Carey's Cottage Handicap Chase at Gowran Park, winning by 5 lengths while carrying 12 st 2 lbs and giving 32 lbs to the second horse. This was followed by a trip to Ascot in November, where he won the prestigious Black & White Whisky Gold Cup in a canter by 15 lengths. For the first time in 8 starts over fences, he started at odds-against for the Massey Ferguson Gold Cup at Cheltenham in December. This was his stiffest task to date as he had been allotted 12 st 6 lbs in the race and had to give 25 lbs and more in weight to his 10 rivals, most of whom were top class handicappers. However, having been backed in from 5/1 to 5/2 favourite, Flyingbolt put up one of the finest performances of his career, taking the lead with 3 to jump and drawing right away to win by 15 lengths in very testing conditions. Pat Taaffe described the race in his autobiography My Life and Arkle's:

The ground at Cheltenham had been very heavy when we arrived, but by the time of the race unceasing rain had turned it into a sea of mud. For Flyingbolt, with twelve-stone-six to carry, you just couldn't imagine anything worse...I had Flyingbolt settled down nicely in the middle of the field, relaxed, jumping superbly and biding his time.... Then, as planned, I made my first move going up the hill at the far end of the course and Flyingbolt, unleashed and free, began to fly through the field.... At the top of the hill only Solbina and Scottish Memories were still in front. Flyingbolt went past and away from them, a man running against boys. Rounding the final bend, he was going so easily that he found time to jump a path across the course. He stormed up the hill, increasing the distance between him and his pursuers with every stride, to win by fifteen lengths from Solbina with Scottish Memories third. It was the manner of his victory, rather than the victory itself, that caused the furore. Men remembered that Scottish Memories had met Arkle twice in the previous season and stretched him on both occasions. In this selfsame race, the Massey-Ferguson, there had been thirty-three pounds and two lengths between them. And in the Leopardstown Chase, thirty-five pounds and one length. Now Flyingbolt had given him twenty-six pounds and left him sixteen and a half lengths behind. Didn't this prove that Flyingbolt was now every bit as good as his more illustrious stable-mate?

Flyingbolt's next start was back at home in the Thyestes Handicap Chase at Gowran Park, where he carried the now customary top weight and beat Height O'Fashion by a distance (in excess of 30 lengths) whilst giving her 28 lbs, with Flying Wild (who received 29 lbs) another 25 lengths back in third. By comparison, Arkle failed by a length to give 32 lbs to Flying Wild in the previous season's Massey-Ferguson Gold Cup.

Flyingbolt's next race was at the Cheltenham Festival for the 2-mile Champion Chase (now the Queen Mother Champion Chase). He started at odds of 1-5, the shortest price in the history of the race, and he won pulling up by 15 lengths. Racing historian John Randall of the Racing Post wrote of his victory, "Flyingbolt cantered home in the Champion Chase in 1966 at odds of 1-5. Trained by Tom Dreaper, this unsung hero was held up by Pat Taaffe, cruised to the front at the second-last, and triumphed with breathtaking ease by 15 lengths from Flash Bulb, with another high-class rival, Flying Wild, third." The comment beside his name in the official form book afterwards summed it up in a few words; "took lead 2 out, canter." Now approaching the height of his powers it was regrettable that he wasn't given the chance to take on Arkle in the Cheltenham Gold Cup. Because both horses were trained by the same man, this was always unlikely to happen. However, 24 hours after the Champion Chase, Flyingbolt re-appeared in the Champion Hurdle where despite taking on the specialist 2-mile hurdlers he started a short-priced favourite but was beaten just over 3 lengths by Salmon Spray. Taaffe was widely criticised for going round the outside and perhaps not letting this proven stayer set a clear lead earlier. As it was, Flyingbolt got too close to the fourth last and lost valuable ground, which may have cost him the race. Taaffe explained in his book: "I ran him on the longer, outside route to minimize the risk of interference and coming to the fourth last we were sharing the lead with Tamerosia and Kirriemuir. It was then that he made his one mistake, getting right under the hurdle, crashing through, losing impetus and about three lengths as well. I had been hoping to set a fearsome pace down the hill making full use of my fellow's stamina. Still Flyingbolt, as competitive as ever, came again and by the second last he was in front again. A few moments later, I glanced sideways and saw the white face of Salmon Spray poised menacingly at my knee and I think I knew that our race was won and lost. We had never trained Flyingbolt over hurdles, but I believe he could have been a great hurdler. He was the most incredible all-rounder...if born in almost any other age the best horse in the world from two miles to three and a quarter, and perhaps beyond that."

Flyingbolt ended his season with a win when carrying the welter burden of 12 st 7 lbs in the Irish Grand National over three and a quarter miles at Fairyhouse, beating Height O'Fashion (by 2 lengths) and the previous year's winner Splash, giving them 40 lbs and 42 lbs respectively. When Arkle (carrying 12-0) won the same race 2 years previously, he beat Height O'Fashion by a length and a quarter, giving her 30 lbs, 10 lbs less than what Flyingbolt had conceded. Flyingbolt is the only Irish National winner since 1946 to have carried 12-7 to victory and as the conditions of this race have since changed in terms of the top weight, it is unlikely that such a weight will be carried in it again. Taaffe reflected on Flyingbolt's performance in his autobiography when he said:

"Flyingbolt won the 1966 Irish National very easily from Arkle's old rival Height O'Fashion. He settled down beautifully and I was surprised how well he stayed. If top weight worried him, it never showed. He made winning look an easy thing that day. Once again I was reminded that I was alternating between the king and crown prince of chasing. More than ever, it now seemed only a matter of time before he took over from Arkle."

Flyingbolt was now unbeaten in 11 starts over fences. In all, he had won 17 of his 20 races, including wins in three different races at the Cheltenham Festival in consecutive years, a feat not equalled until achieved by Bobs Worth in 2011-2013. At only 7 years of age (2 years younger than Arkle) it looked like he had the racing world at his feet. Sadly, things would never be the same again.

Illness[edit]

Flyingbolt was turned out on grass for the summer along with a few other horses and a number of cattle, which would be normal practice on any farm. It was during this period that rumours began to surface of the Wilkinsons' eagerness to take on Arkle in the following year's Cheltenham Gold Cup. He had done everything else that was asked of him; he was unbeaten over fences at all distances and there was only one thing left to prove - that he was better than Arkle. As a result the following season was eagerly awaited.

Flyingbolt was first on to the stage. The race was the National Hunt Centenary Chase at Cheltenham on 29 October 1966, where he carried 12 st 7 lbs. Although he was giving 21 lbs and more in weight to the other 4 runners, they were a modest bunch and it was expected to be no more than an exercise canter for Flyingbolt. Starting favourite at 2-7, he appeared to have everything under control until suddenly weakening 2 out before finishing 9 lengths third. Something was clearly wrong, but nothing obvious came to light. Eventually, exhaustive tests indicated brucellosis, a serious, long-lasting infectious disease primarily associated with cattle. It was concluded that Flyingbolt must have picked it up during the summer whilst out grazing with the cattle, one or more of whom may have been infected. Brucellosis is a debilitating blood disease which also causes inflammation of the joints, a serious handicap in the training of racehorses. The only means of tackling the problem was through a prolonged period of medical treatment and plenty of rest, after which there was little or no chance of a full recovery. However, he was still a young horse and the hope was that he could recover sufficiently in order to return and win a Cheltenham Gold Cup. As it turned out, one horse he would now never meet was Arkle. Within 2 months of Flyingbolt's setback, Arkle fractured a pedal bone in the King George VI Chase at Kempton Park and never raced again. It was a devastating blow for the followers of national hunt racing.

Return[edit]

Flyingbolt eventually returned to action a year later but only took part in 2 races within the space of a month. Carrying 12 st 7 lbs in both, he finished 3rd on his first start at Punchestown (giving 42 lbs to all of the other runners) before finishing a well-beaten 7th in the Mackeson Gold Cup at Cheltenham. Dreaper expressed the wish to retire the horse at this point rather than watch him deteriorate any further through no fault of his own. However, the owners decided to keep him in training and when he returned to the track after a further year on the sidelines, he was in the care of Ken Oliver in Scotland. Flyingbolt again ran in only 2 races that season, although he did win one of them when carrying 12 st 7 lbs to victory under Barry Brogan in a handicap chase at Haydock on 3 January 1969. Out of action for yet another year, he eventually returned to race sparingly for another 2 seasons but he was unrecognisable from the great horse that he once was although he did finish second in the King George VI Chase at Kempton on the eve of his 11th birthday, one of the few races in the calendar where he did not have to give lumps of weight away to the opposition. His final start, for his latest trainer Roddy Armytage, came as a twelve-year-old in the Topham Trophy Handicap Chase at Aintree on 1 April 1971 where he carried top-weight but fell for the only time in his career. It was a sad way for it all to end. The fact that his owners made the decision to continue racing him after he had been struck down by brucellosis probably took some of the shine off his earlier achievements and as such some people found it difficult to believe that he could have been as good as Arkle. Jockey Barry Brogan, who rode him to his final victory at Haydock, was Dreaper's assistant and stable amateur during the 1965-1966 season and had ridden both Arkle and Flyingbolt in their work. In his autobiography he says:

"In my view Flyingbolt was probably the best horse I ever rode - even better than Arkle. I honestly believe that he would have beaten Arkle in the 1966 Gold Cup if Tom Dreaper had allowed him to run."

In a subsequent interview with the Racing Post in December 2008, more than 25 years after the publication of his autobiography, he re-affirmed his comments when he said, "For all Arkle's brilliance, I felt Flyingbolt was the better horse. If Pat Taaffe was alive, he'd tell you the same."

Assessment[edit]

In the end, Arkle and Flyingbolt never met on the racecourse but they did so at home as Pat Taaffe recounted in his book My Life & Arkle's.

"Flyingbolt was hacking along with Paddy Woods on his back and a funny look in his eye. Upsides on Arkle, I was thinking to myself that I would never see a prouder horse than this. Then he turned his head and slowly looked us over. You could almost see the curl of the lip. This was the 'Who are these peasants?' look of his that I was to come to know so well and I suppose I should have been forewarned. Next thing I knew he's taken a strong hold and was away. Not to be outdone, Arkle took an equally strong hold and got up alongside. And so these two young chasers who were then potentially the best in the world staged their own private race during what was supposed to be a normal session of morning schooling. They took the next four fences, neck and neck, flat out as though their lives depended on the outcome, while Paddy and I held on to them for dear life and waited for the fires to die down. Well, they cleared them all right, but it was a bit too close for comfort and Mr. Dreaper never allowed them to be schooled together again. In character, they were the night and the day. A small child could walk into Arkle's box in absolute safety. No child, no man would ever willingly step into Flyingbolt's.... at least, not twice. He'd kick the eye out of your head. But over jumps and on the flat he was a superb machine and a brave one.... For him, the future was limitless.... Certainly he was as good at seven as Arkle was at the same age.... If progress had been maintained, he would have been as good, if not better, than Arkle himself."

Jim Dreaper, Tom's son, was just a schoolboy at the time and he recounted his thoughts on both Arkle and Flyingbolt to Hugh McIlvanney 30 years later. "It is foolish to say there can never be another steeplechaser as great as Arkle. There may have been one in the yard along with him. It is impossible to tell how fantastic Flyingbolt might have been if he had not contracted brucellosis."

Arkle is generally acknowledged as being the greatest ever steeplechaser. Although he is officially the second-greatest of all time, Flyingbolt never got anything like the recognition he deserved. In an article in the Racing Post in March 2009, John Randall wrote, "In any era except that of Arkle, Flyingbolt would have reigned supreme, but he raced in the shadow of his stablemate and never received the credit he deserved. He was officially rated only one pound below Arkle, and although it defies belief that the two greatest steeplechasers of all time should have been in the same stable at the same time, with the same jockey and even the same groom (Johnny Lumley), the figures speak for themselves." When the Racing Post conducted a readers' poll in 2004 to determine the 100 favourite racehorses of all time, Arkle, predictably, was number one whilst Flyingbolt failed to make the list, lending credence to Randall's assertion that Flyingbolt was indeed "racing's greatest unsung hero."

Retirement[edit]

Flyingbolt was retired in 1971 and spent most of his time in the company of former stable mate, Fort Leney, a winner himself of the Cheltenham Gold Cup in 1968.

He died in 1983 at the age of 24.

External links[edit]

References[edit]