McCain joy tainted by Grand perils
Balloons in the colours of Trevor Hemmings were tied to the stable gates yesterday morning, and it seemed as though the whole Cheshire landscape was conspiring in the celebrations.
Yet it was the death of two horses in the Aintree Grand National that had served as a ghastly counterpoint to the dauntless courage of Ballabriggs.
Jason Maguire, his jockey, had led his pursuers round two bypassed fences on the second circuit, and as he did so millions had glimpsed the harrowing reasons why.
As soon as he passed the winning post, moreover, Maguire leaped to the ground and tore off the saddle, as buckets of water were urgently splashed across the horse.
Had it still been left to the trainer's father to clarify the moral complexities of the moment, as he sipped his champagne yesterday, the sport might have regretted even his unprecedented place in its folklore. Ginger McCain, who saddled Red Rum and Amberleigh House to win four Nationals between them, was predictably incorrigible.
In his day, it is true, Aintree was less sparing still. But his son, Donald, did not need to win a National to identify himself as his own man. The things he is doing here, after all, are a world apart from Red Rum galloping over the strand at Southport.
As befits a younger generation, he acknowledged the dilemmas of his calling, but urged those beyond the racing parish to temper their recriminations.
It is not as if his community lacks a proper grasp of the hazards. Earlier on the National card, a young rider named Peter Toole suffered head injuries in a hurdle race. He remained in an induced coma yesterday.
McCain, meanwhile, could point directly across from the stable that houses Ballabriggs to one that has stood empty since Thursday. Inventor, the other equine casualty of the three-day National meeting, had also taken his fall over hurdles. Yet to any outsider, these trifling timber boards would look utterly innocuous, compared to the giant spruce fences on the National course.
"My horse was killed over hurdles," McCain Jr remarked. "There are risks in any sport. Nobody cares more about horses than we do. They are treated like royalty, and they have an awful lot better life than they would otherwise.
"Every horse deserves the chance to be a great horse, that's the thing. And if a horse doesn't want to jump Aintree, it won't jump Aintree." Vivid testimony to that effect is available from those tending the stricken Dooneys Gate at Becher's Brook. They were nearly killed themselves when a loose horse decided that he would sooner jump the hedge than follow the others around it.
McCain Jr was effusive in his praise for Aintree, where "no stone is left unturned" in making the race as safe as possible, while trying to retain a unique spectacle.
It was only two years ago that provision had been made to bypass Becher's Brook, and the course management has vowed to keep anticipating avoidable peril. Paul Nicholls, who lost Ornais, rang Andrew Tulloch yesterday to congratulate him on the state of the course throughout the meeting.
But the clerk of the course reiterated Aintree's dread of complacency. "We will review everything, with the interested groups, as we always do," he said.
"If we can make changes to make it safer, we will. We have to manage risk as best we can, and make things as safe as is practical."
To McCain Sr, of course, even that would represent an odious concession to those he loves to shock. "All the do-gooders, they want to take away the drops and all the rest of it," he complained.
"They've modified things, and that's causing the horses to go quicker. And it's the bloody speed that kills."
Ginger being Ginger, of course, he will be indulged most of his mischief. "It's part and parcel of the job," he pronounced cheerfully. Better, he reckoned, to go at your best than to end up "like me, old and doddery, and waiting to be put down."
He recalled lying in a hospital bed last Christmas Eve. "I was in a six-bed ward and within a week four of the other buggers had snuffed it," he said. "I told the doctor he wouldn't be getting a 100pc record out of me, and I was out of there that night. I always said I'd like to see that young 'un win a National before I turned my toes up. I've done it now.
"I never dreamt I'd say this, but he is a good trainer. If he'd just take up smoking or womanising, or something like that, so the pedigree could come out." (© Independent News Service)