The life of a horse with a chronic bone disease called pedal osteitis and that of a man from humble beginnings crossed paths and joined forces 40 years ago. In doing so they helped ward off the possible demise of the most famous steeplechase in history, the Grand National held at Aintree, England. To add to the rags to riches story is that they made racing history along the way.
Known as, “the ultimate test of a horse’s courage,” The Grand National is an often criticized race that asks horses to jump 30 fences over two circuits of the course that is 4 miles 3.5 furlongs (7141 metres) in length on Aintree’s National course. The jumps are bigger than those at conventional national race meets and include the infamous Becher’s Brook, and the Chair, this latter jump and the water jump being jumped only once.
The race, that was first run officially in 1839, had actually started three years earlier and the prize money was a few sovereigns. Jump to 2014 and the prize money totalled 1 million pounds or $1703450.00 US dollars. However, despite the history of this challenging race, the 1970s were not a good decade for the race meet due to various issues surrounding course ownership, waning interest in racing thanks to high entrance fees and other factors.
Our story starts off with a man called Donald McCain – later called Ginger – who watched his first Grand National as a boy in 1940 at ten years of age. Later he recalled that,” To a young boy it seemed like the whole world had turned up…it made a big impression on me and ended up changing my life in ways I could never have dreamed of.”
In the 1950’s McCain began to ride out racehorses for a trainer in Tarporley named Frank Speakman. Later McCain would drive a taxi, run a car showroom, train horses under permit and finally in 1969, train them under license.
One of his cab fares was a billionaire in the winter of his life called Noel La Mare and he, like McCain, had been taken in by the racing game and the excitement it offered. He and Ginger saw that they were kindred spirits with a common racing goal and dream and McCain was asked to buy a racehorse for La Mare.
In 1972, McCain bought Red Rum, born May 3, 1965, and later affectionately called “Rummy” for 6,000 guineas at the Doncaster sales. The horse was bred to win one-mile races but won his National titles over the longest distance, four miles and four furlongs. He was passed around from one trainer to another until McCain took a chance on the horse. Sadly, the horse hobbled out of his stall just the next day and hopes were dashed. However, the lack of good exercising space in Southport was a blessing in disguise and McCain took to galloping the horse on the sandy beaches near his business. McCain had noticed, even as a child, how the bracing sea water and sandy surface of beaches helped to keep the shrimp horses sound with sturdy, tight legs. Would this also help Red Rum who suffered from pedal osteitis, an inflammatory conditional of the pedal bone? Overtime, the horse improved and Red Rum was ready to race.
In the 1973 Grand National at the age of eight, Red Rum ran a race that stills burns in the memories of those who were there: Another horse Crisp looked like the victory would be his as he ran 15 lengths ahead at the last fence. But Red Rum was determined and he wore down the horse and won in the last moments by three quarters of a length, setting a race record at that time.
In the 1974 season, Red Rum was a force to be reckoned with and the public had found a new hero and horse to love which was a blessing. Race attendance numbers had fallen sharply in the 1970s as the new owner of the course, Bill Davies had trebled the entrance price for spectators and many felt the race course and indeed, the famous Grand National were in trouble. Ladbrokes the bookmaker stepped up and offered to run the course and the race and did so successfully for the next seven years. The future of the course was secured when public support, spurred on by the popularity of Red Rum enabled the course to be placed safely into the hands of the Jockey Club.
His presence on the racecourse drew fans like a magnet and he galloped home a victor in four other races before grabbing a second Grand National victory despite carrying 12 stone in weights (168 pounds). Red Rum started the race as third favourite at 11/1 but won easily by seven lengths with Brian Fletcher in the irons who had also steered him to victory in his first Grand National win. Three weeks later Red Rum proved that he was made of mighty stuff when he won the Scottish Grand National.
In 1975 once again Red Rum was forced to carry 12 stone of weight and he placed second as L’Escargot beat him by 15 lengths. The next year, once again carrying top weight, he came second to Rag Trade. But, in 1977, Red Rum stunned race fans the world over by claiming, at the age of 12, his third Grand National by 30 lengths while carrying 11 stone 8 pounds. (162 pounds). Here is announcer Peter O’Sullevan’s race call:
“He’s jumped it clear of Churchtown Boy – he’s done it with a tremendous cheer from the crowd; they’re willing him home now!
“The 12-year-old Red Rum, being preceded only by loose horses … they’re coming to the “elbow” with a furlong now between Red Rum and his third Grand National triumph.
“He’s coming up to the line to win it like a fresh horse in great style. It’s hats off and a tremendous reception – you’ve never heard one like it at Liverpool. Red Rum wins the National.”
Red Rum had a following that was second to none despite being unable to compete in a sixth Grand National attempt due to a last minute hairline fracture that retired him. The British public loved him. His image graced key chains, towels, mugs and a plethora of other items; he opened pubs and supermarkets, the Steeplechase rollercoaster at Blackpool Pleasure Beach and also helped switch on the Blackpool Illuminations that same year in 1977.
Red Rum died on October 18, 1995 and is buried by the winning post at Aintree, his death making front page news. His epitaph reads “Respect this place/ this hallowed ground a legend here/his rest has found/his feet would fly/our spirits soar/ he earned our love for evermore.”
McCain continued to train other horses but his name will also be partnered with the peerless Red Rum, the horse who didn’t fall in 100 races and whose third Grand National victory was voted 24th greatest sporting moment of all times.
In a survey taken 11 years after his death, Red Rum was voted as best known horse by 45% of Britons, followed at 33% by Black Beauty and in third place was the kidnapped racehorse Shergar at 23%. Desert Orchid, another popular race horse was fourth with 16%.
In Red Rum’s 10 year career he had twenty four different jockeys and five trainers but in that career he managed to win 3 flat races, 3 hurdle races and also 21 steeplechases. He was also placed 37 times.
Ginger McCain died on September 19, 2011 at the age of 80 and his three Grand National wins and two seconds with Red Rum is the stuff of legends. In an article in The Telegraph on September 2011, McCain and Red Rum are given full credit for being the team that brought throngs of people back to watch the Grand National with fervour and renewed interest and in doing so saw the future secure for this world class race.