Dreaper cautious over Gale forecast

racing: The son of the man who trained Arkle is preparing a gifted youn g horse for great things but plays down comparisons `The Ericsson Chase should tell us a lot. That will be the true test of his abi lity'
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The Independent Online
BY RICHARD EDMONDSON Racing Correspondent It was an idiosyncrasy of the great Arkle that he crossed his legs as he jumped, and ever since his passing racegoers have been crossing their fingers in expectation that his like will come again.

For nearly 30 years now, rising Irish horses have been compared with" himself" and for 30 years they have failed to reach his heights. The current "new Arkle" is Merry Gale, who, in great soap opera scriptwriting fashion, is trained by Jim Dreaper, the son of Arkle's trainer, Tom.

Merry Gale has compiled an authoritative record in his homeland, but nothing near enough to justify his position as 6-1 favourite for the Gold Cup with one of the Big Three. The six-year-old's true merit will be available on Wednesday, however, when he takes on Flashing Steel, Commercial Artist and possibly the 1993 Gold Cup winner, Jodami, in the Ericsson Chase at Leopardstown.

"It's a bit hard to assess the horse because we haven't yet seen him in a hurly-burly situation," Dreaper said. "You couldn't fault him but he hasn't yet gone down to the last three or four fences besides something going better than him. The Ericsson should tell us a lot. That will be the true test of his jumping and the true test of his ability."

For someone who has probably heard the word Arkle more times than he would choose, Dreaper himself gets rather excited when talking about the search for a successor. "Someone out there has one," he said. "He might be one-year-old or eight, but there is one out there."

The trainer, who will be 44 next month, has only patchy recollections of Arkle. When the big horse was running, the only chalk Dreaper knew was not in bookmakers' fingers but on blackboards at his boarding school. Nevertheless, he does remember the nationalistic discord of the time, when Britain thought it possessed a steeplechaser nonpareil in Mill House, a horse that would easily see off the Irish parvenu. That attitude had to be revised after the 1964 Gold Cup. "I was well aware of the hype about theEnglish versus the Irish at the time, with Arkle versus Mill House," Dreaper said. "There was a great fuss about two horses against each other, two National Hunt outfits against each other."

There is considerably more clarity when Dreaper muses over Carvill's Hill, whose career would have made a good chess board. The horse, yet another new Arkle of his time, was brilliant on occasions but at other times looked as comfortable on a racecourse as he would have done on a unicycle.

Carvill's Hill's performance in the 1991 Welsh National remains as probably the most awesome steeplechasing display this decade, but three months after that he was gone, a broken and dispirited animal after a controversial Gold Cup. Those British-based runs were for Martin Pipe, but he had also been at either end of the see-saw with Dreaper in Ireland.

"There were the terrible days, but for us the greatness of him was that he had some marvellous days when he wasn't ever 100 per cent," Dreaper said. "Because it was uncomfortable or painful for him he didn't have the ability to shorten up before fences or do the job properly. He used to bunny hop.

"He was a real serious horse to do what he did when not being right and that was the way to measure him. I'm not going to say he could have been as good as Arkle, but if he had been sound he'd have done special things."

If Carvill's Hill instructed Dreaper about the slings and arrows, he also taught him how to handle the hypesters and he has been demonstrably low key about Merry Gale's achievements. In truth, there was little to play down at the beginning of this season.

On his reappearance at Galway the only sportsman the six-year-old resembled was a darts player and his podgy frame duly plodded home in fourth place. "I asked Kevin O'Brien [the jockey] when the horse blew up," Dreaper said. "He replied: which time do you mean?'"

Last month Merry Gale fell three out in a three horse-race when six lengths clear, before normal service was resumed at Punchestown. The last event was typical of many of the gelding's victories, an almost bloodless affair in a small field. "Merry Gale has had a lucky career in that he's won a number of non-events," Dreaper said. "You could say he's frightened off the opposition, but he's also won races when other horses have fallen when they might have caused him a problem. In all the races he won he'sprobably beaten only 20 horses."

This, clearly, does not yet put Merry Gale in the league of "himself", whose skeleton remains on public display at the National Stud near The Curragh. The main reminder of the legend at Greenogue, Dreaper's yard, is his box, which is largely the same as it was 30 years ago. "Except we've got a different door on it," Dreaper said." The old one fell off."

If the wheels fall off Merry Gale on Wednesday, it may be that the box's latest inhabitant will come more into the limelight. He is an animal called Harcon, who made a winning debut over fences at Punchestown earlier this month. Many liked that performance and some compared him to a fledgling chaser from history. The same chaser all horses in Ireland are compared with.