Alastair Down talks to Willie Robinson 50 years on from Mill House's Gold Cup
Willie Robinson died on Friday at the age of 86. This interview was originally published in the Racing Post on February 25, 2013
Racing footage comes no more totemic. Around a sunlit Cheltenham in the early 1960s the immovable object of Mill House and the irresistible force that was Arkle match Gold Cup strides down the hill – the issue still in doubt and denouement yet to come.
Against those two have all others since been matched and, for the most part, found wanting. Those pounding hooves are long gone, carrying the combatants off to the immortality of racing lore and legend. And the human players in the drama have also departed. Evocative names woven into the sport's inheritance - Tom Dreaper and Pat Taaffe, the Duchess of Westminster and Fulke Walwyn.
But one remains, and in his greeting is to be found a measure of the man. For the visitor, none of that tramping up to the front door and tentative knock wondering about the nature of the reception.
Willie Robinson, the man on Mill House, comes to you, opening the garden gate to shake your hand. It is called a welcome.
Robinson finished second in a Derby, won two Champion Hurdles, a Grand National on the diminutive Team Spirit and trained an Irish 2,000 Guineas winner. But next month it will be 50 years since he rode Mill House to win the Cheltenham Gold Cup, a victory many in Britain believed would herald a whole clutch of chasing crowns for the big horse, though it was not be.
Willie says: "It was Pat Taaffe who did all the early work with Mill House, breaking him in and bringing him on. I remember seeing him win his maiden hurdle at Naas and you had to watch because he had a big reputation even then.
"He could have treated the last hurdle with a bit more respect, but he was good. The stewards had my friend Frank Prendergast in for not trying too hard with one behind him, and he said to the stipe, 'what about the others?' because nobody else tried either.
"Dave Dick then rode him at the big Punchestown meeting and he came back in spluttering 'this horse has got to be bought'. He was sold for a lot of money to Bill Gollings and went over first to Syd Dale and then to Fulke Walwyn.
"At the time I was of a mind that it was too late for me to go over and ride in England – I thought they were a bit too rough for me over there! But I'd ridden Mandarin to win his second Hennessy in 1961 when Fred Winter had done a collarbone – I'd been warned he could take a hold and try to run away with you, but he didn't pull everyone around.
"I eventually went off to Fulke's at Saxon House. Some of the English trainers of that generation were very tough people – if you didn't smile at the right time you'd nearly be executed. But Fulke was all right, you had to do two things for him – you had to do what he told you to do and you had to win.
"He could train a moderate horse as well as a good one. They were always well schooled and knew their job.
"Mill House had a bit of a layoff and behaved like a backward horse and took a long time to click. He'd flop around the place and flop up the hill and I remember the guv'nor asking out loud how this was the best horse to have come out of Ireland.
"He always did himself too well – ate everything – would have eaten stones if he could and that, combined with being a lazy worker, made him hard to get fit.
"He was such a sensitive horse, he'd do exactly what you want. He was a tremendous jumper and amazed me around Sandown. You've never seen a horse jump the Railway fences like him, he just bounced over them.
"You could tap him once on the wither and he'd just take off. You would get down off him and get up on the next one and the difference was so huge you'd be asking yourself 'what the hell am I on this one for?'
"His Gold Cup year was that terrible winter of 1963 and we even took him to the beach near Goodwood, although how we got there with all the snow I'll never know. I always thought the Gold Cup would be a procession and everything went to plan and he simply couldn't have won more easily. It sounds strange to say it, but he was so hard to get fit that he'd always be a better horse after a race.
"But that Cheltenham was also my first recollection of seeing Arkle when he won the Broadway Chase. Pat had told me all about him and he was brilliant that day and I thought 'this is the horse Mill House will have to deal with in next year's Gold Cup', but I couldn't tell Fulke."
It is almost impossible to convey now how mighty was the rivalry that built up between Mill House and Arkle, with loyal supporters on both sides of the water convinced their horse was utterly exceptional and refusing to contemplate the possibility of defeat.
They met in the Hennessy at Newbury, and Willie says: "It was the day Arkle slipped, but the guv'nor had done a great job on Mill House, getting him extra fit and he was outstandingly good that day."
Arkle finished third and the result doubly reinforced Mill House's supporters in their belief he was far superior to his Irish rival. Dreaper and Taaffe returned to Greenogue to tend their wounds knowing the afternoon had gone agin 'em but convinced it was but a battle lost and there was still a war to be won.
The two clashed again in the 1964 Gold Cup and there is still a trace of something akin to shock in Willie's voice when he says: "The difference in Arkle in the paddock between Newbury and Cheltenham was quite amazing.
"Arkle had somehow matured, he looked terribly fit and a real racehorse. He was one of those rare horses who knew people admired him and he looked magnificent. We stuck together down the hill but then I looked over and Pat had a double handful.
"Fulke could not believe he could be beaten and I thought Mill House was exactly the animal horsemen had being trying to breed for 200 years – a great, big, strong weight-carrier who stayed and jumped. And then along came an athlete who could power up the hill at Sandown as if it didn't exist.
"After Mill House was beaten I can remember the silence in the yard and the sadness at things having gone wrong. He was a horse with a lot of physical problems and, increasingly, his legs and the vertebrae in his back made things ever more difficult down the years.
"It was partly the way he was made. When he was 100 per cent fit he would jump a fence and immediately land running. When he was not quite fit enough he'd come down steeper and straighter, and that put terrific strain on his legs. I've always thought there should have been only heads and necks between him and Arkle if he had stayed the way he was at his very peak.
"He was a gentleman, a lovely horse and beautifully balanced, but just think of the size of him and the strain he put on everything. He was always going to go wrong whether Arkle was there or not. He was by King Hal and there was a notion that they were soft – but he was anything but soft."
Robinson is engaging company, drily amusing with a ready laugh, but there is just a touch of wistfulness about the tack-sharp 79-year-old when he talks of Mill House, the unexorcised spectre of might-have-beens. You will find no greater admirer of Arkle, but you sense a feeling Willie still wishes Mill House had somehow had more opportunity fully to do himself justice.
We break for a fine spot of lunch readied by Willie's wife Susan, one of those agelessly attractive, bright and energetic women who are rare and smilingly beyond the price of rubies.
Willie found a new lease of life and health when radically altering his diet seven years ago, and says: "In two days I didn't know myself, I felt so much better. I discovered I had been allergic to a whole host of things, so out went beef, lamb, pork, dairy products, tea, coffee and whisky. Fish and game are fine and so is vodka and wine, and now I'm absolutely fine."
The Robinsons are full of plans for their forthcoming raid on the festival, when they will stay with Peter and Bonk Walwyn as usual and do Cruft's en route to Cheltenham.
Susan makes her excuses and goes off to do her stint with Riding for the Disabled, which she has been doing for 40 years – a life-enhancer if you ever met one.
Lunch done, Willie carefully unpacks a large box of press cuttings and black and white photos capturing high points of days gone but not forgotten. Kneeling, he pulls pictures from old buff envelopes and the years fall away and I find myself floating back to my childhood on a sea of well-loved chasing names – Buona Notte, Dormant, Man Of The West, Ferry Boat.
There is a photo of Team Spirit in the old winner's enclosure at Aintree surrounded by his American owners and one of him returning to Saxon House under a banner bearing the legend 'Welcome back Little Champ'.
There is a brilliant shot of Willie and Susan dining at the Lido in Paris, a palpably glamorous couple out on the town and cutting a dash. It must have been taken the best part of 50 years ago, but the decades have been kind to both and the pairing would still light up any room.
Willie was always listed on the runners and riders board and in the papers as GW Robinson, and he says: "I'm actually George William Richard Robinson. Why I should be named after three English kings I don't know. As for what happened to Richard, I have no idea either - he obviously got dethroned somewhere along the way."
And then, chuckling away as he so often does, Willie adds: "The Inland Revenue think I'm dead as they keep sending letters addressed to 'the executors of GW Robinson'. They must know something I don't."
He is warming to his task now, the memories tumbling out along with the photos and all the recollections shot through with such warmth and affection. I learn that Tim Brookshaw was known as How Now Brown Cow and how Fred Winter told him it didn't hurt when you broke your leg – "he was wrong about that, in my opinion!" He is also of the opinion that Walwyn's head man Darkie Deacon could look after horses better than anybody and did a brilliant job with tearaways like The Dikler and Charlie Potheen.
Ironically, it was The Dikler, who ran in seven Gold Cups and won the great race in 1973, who was one of the signposts telling Willie it was time to retire from the saddle.
He recalls: "He was big and heavy and by god he could hang when he went right-handed. I came back in from riding him one day and told the guv'nor, 'I can't go on doing this much longer – that fella has nearly killed me!' He told me not to be silly, but I knew my time was coming to an end."
On March 10, virtually on festival eve, there is to be a gathering of the Saxon House clan, a reunion party with Cath Walwyn, going strong in her 80s, very much the centre of attention.
Also on hand and certainly no less honoured will be Willie Robinson, a gem of a man, a slight but shining light who for the generations captivated by Arkle and Mill House is very much a part of everything jumping people hold dear and deem valuable.
As one great Gold Cup-winning trainer said to me last week: "He has been the perfect little gent all his life."
Yes. And he has enriched the sport he has graced in the process.
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