Sport Horse Racing

Saturday 18 November 2017

Success runs in the family

Paul Hayward at Aintree

For the McCain family the Grand National has become a hereditary prize.

Donald "Ginger" McCain will forever be associated with Red Rum, whose equine spirit still pervades this carnival ground in northern Liverpool. In front of a sell-out Aintree crowd, Ginger passed the family silver on to his son, Donald Jr, who sent out Ballabriggs to beat Oscar Time and Sam Waley-Cohen, the amateur who won the Cheltenham Gold Cup on Long Run.

In a race marred by two fatalities, Waley-Cohen came within two and a quarter lengths of adding the National to the Gold Cup and King George VI Chase, which Long Run also won. This would have had the professionals reeling but Jason Maguire defended their honour, defying conventional wisdom about how the National is won by keeping Ballabriggs prominent throughout and booting him home at 14/1 under pressure from Oscar Time.

What A Friend, part-owned by Alex Ferguson, was pulled up before the 27th fence. The horse has clearly never heard a Ferguson team talk. "Never give up" is the Manchester United manager's mantra.

The winner's owner, Trevor Hemmings, does have a strong football connection. He owns Preston North End, who upset Ferguson this season by sacking his son, Darren, as manager. Don't Push It, last year's winner for Tony McCoy, was third as 19 of the 40 runners completed the course.

"It's been a phenomenal season and it's an honour to be riding in such big races," Waley-Cohen said. "The Grand National is a race where if your horse takes to the fences he gives you the best 10 minutes of your life."

Or the worst, if the creature fails to negotiate the 30 obstacles in the four-and-a-half-mile journey. Two fences were bypassed on the second circuit as Ornais (which fell at the fourth) and Dooneys Gate, which crashed at Becher's Brook, breathed their last.

In Red Rum's day the fences were Himalayan. But despite extensive modifications the race still arouses the hostility of animal rights groups and is sure to be assailed again by those who believe the reward is not worth the risk.

For the McCains, though, Aintree is a kind of private family stage. Red Rum remains the only horse to win the National three times, in 1973, 1974 and 1977, when Liverpool's racecourse was a crumbling relic from Corinthian times, and the crowd was a fraction of today's. In the popular imagination Red Rum became the animal who tamed the most frightening barriers in sport.

Though built like a rugby lock, McCain was the intrepid little man taking on the sport's big names and winning. Returning to relative obscurity, he looked a long-shot to ever enter the Aintree winner's enclosure again, but in 2004 he won his second National with Amberleigh House, which Donald Jr helped train.

The younger man was steeped in the game. He rode his first winner on the Flat at 15, progressed to National Hunt and rode 40 horses to victory. In 2006 he took over Ginger's licence and he has since become a major force on the jumping scene.

Most National winners hunt round on the first circuit and make their move in the second half of the race. "I didn't think he'd lead all the way. That must have been Donald and Jason's idea," said Ginger McCain, who has been in poor health and almost stayed at home. "They're a couple of cocky bastards, aren't they?"

Ballabriggs was exhausted by the journey and McCain said: "I was concerned when he pulled up after the line, but it's very hot out there and he was tired. He's a horse who doesn't save anything -- he gives everything and is an absolute joy to train."

With its blizzard of sponsors' logos, pristine turf and peacock fashions, Aintree is unrecognisable from the first McCain era, when the father trained Red Rum from a small yard behind his Southport car showroom, and galloped the horse on the nearby sands. His defeat of the front-running Crisp in 1973 remains one of the most glorious and heartbreaking of Aintree images.

He is buried next to the winning post.

For the McCains the National is an eternal quest. They plan their worlds around it. The toughest prize in the sport to win has become their heirloom.


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