The trainer who took Red Rum to a Grand National hat-trick wasn't afraid to speak his mind, writes Erick Law
GINGER McCain, who has died of cancer, two days short of his 81st birthday, saddled Red Rum to win the Grand National three times, in 1973, 1974 and 1977. But the hat-trick of victories was not simply a magnificent achievement in its own right: it arguably saved the race.
The Seventies had been troubled years for the National, which had been slipping in the public's affections. In 1965 Mirabel Topham had announced she was seeking a buyer for Aintree, but it wasn't until 1973 that the course was finally sold to the property developer Bill Davies, who tripled admission prices. The result was predictable: the attendance in 1975, the year of L'Escargot's victory, was the smallest in memory.
The bookmakers Ladbroke's then signed a seven-year agreement allowing them to manage the National. By then Red Rum had his first two wins in the bag, and as Mike Dillon, Ladbroke's PR director, put it: "When we were first involved you didn't have to be a genius to realise that Red Rum had become synonymous with the race and the horse had won the affection of a nation. From an early stage we wanted to make use of the horse when we could to raise the profile of the race.
"Where we were really fortunate was that Ginger was so accommodating. Any request I made involving the horse, he greeted it with such great enthusiasm. He was fantastic to work with and it was obvious from an early stage that he would do everything in his power to save the National."
Born on September 21 1930, Donald McCain had dreamed of winning the Grand National since the age of eight, when he watched the legendary race from makeshift stands built on canal barges. He began his training career as a permit holder in 1953, taking out a full licence in 1969, when his stables were behind his car showroom in Southport. He had been training for 12 years before he sent out his first winner, San Lorenzo, in a selling chase at Aintree in January 1965.
In the early days he worked as a taxi driver to supplement his income -- a fortuitous move, as it brought him into contact with Noel le Mare, a Lancashire construction engineer who also dreamed of winning the National. McCain bought Red Rum for Le Mare for 6,000 guineas. "I remember seeing him as a two-year-old at Liverpool but it was not until the Doncaster Sales in 1972 that I got him," McCain said in 1990. "From the start it was always going to be the National."
Before being bought by McCain, Red Rum had been stricken by the bone disease pedal osteitis, which should have meant retirement. Although he appeared to have recovered, in the 1972 Scottish Grand National, in which he finished fifth, he kept changing his legs in the closing stages. hanging towards the rails. McCain, though, saw potential and bought him.
It turned out that Red Rum was going to the ideal place: McCain did his training on the beach at Southport, and the seawater worked miracles. Once he had Red Rum going through his paces on the sand, it was clear McCain had bagged an extraordinary horse. "He won his first five races for us on the bounce, going from 10st in the handicap to 12st and just kept on winning," McCain recalled. "It seemed so easy -- he just went there and did it. Looking back I suppose we were cocky, a bit gassy and above ourselves, because he was the first decent horse I had ever got to handle. But we were a very small yard with one good horse and we just lived him for those years."
Following those early successes, on March 31, 1973, ridden by Brian Fletcher, Red Rum started joint favourite for the Grand National, putting in a thrilling finish to beat the brave frontrunner, Crisp, by three-quarters of a length in what was then a record time. The following year he had four more victories, then won his second Grand National, again ridden by Fletcher, carrying the maximum weight of 12st. Giving a pound in weight to the Cheltenham Gold Cup winner, L'Escargot, he started third favourite at 11/1, winning easily by seven lengths. Three weeks later Red Rum took the Scottish Grand National.
L'Escargot gained revenge in the 1975 National, beating Red Rum into second place. McCain, criticised for running Red Rum too often, resisted calls for him to retire the horse. When Fletcher had said he also feared the horse was "gone", McCain replaced him with Tommy Stack. But it seemed as though Fletcher might have been right: Red Rum finished sixth in the Hennessy Gold Cup at Newbury and was beaten by Rag Trade in the 1976 National, again finishing second.
The 1977 season didn't start well; after a win at Carlisle, the horse's star seemed dimmed over the next four outings, and McCain began to wonder whether his critics had been correct. They weren't: again ridden by Stack, Red Rum tackled his fifth National. He was assisted greatly by Churchtown Boy's mistake at the second-last fence and won by 25 lengths. McCain took him back home to celebrate with some of his supporters. "The horse was invited into a hotel in Southport," Stack recalled. "He proceeded to walk up the steps and into the lobby for a drink." A statue of Red Rum was later put up in the town centre.
He was trained for a sixth attempt in 1978 as a 13-year-old, but on the day before he pulled up lame; a hairline fracture meant that this time there was no argument: the horse had to be retired. He had raced 100 times over jumps, winning 24 of them. He died aged 30 in 1995 and was buried by the Aintree winning post.
In 2004, 27 years after Red Rum's historic hat-trick, McCain tasted National success again, when Amberleigh House, ridden by Graham Lee, claimed victory. At the age of 12, the horse, like Red Rum -- and like his trainer -- was by then a veteran, but that proved irrelevant as he made a late dash to catch Clan Royal, one of the four co-favourites. I
McCain was famously unafraid of speaking his mind, and courted controversy before the 2005 Grand National when he disparagingly assessed the chances of the female jockey Carrie Ford. "Horses do not win Nationals ridden by women," he counselled. Ford had taken the ride a few weeks after giving birth, and McCain went on: "Carrie is a grand lass, but she is a broodmare now and having kids does not get you fit to ride Grand Nationals."
Ford ended up guiding Forest Gunner to fifth place, well ahead of Amberleigh House. Last week she remembered McCain with fondness, saying, "I actually rode for Ginger a few times. Looking back at those comments, it was all very much tongue in cheek and in good humour."
McCain retired after the 2006 National, handing over the licence to his son Donald, who maintained the family tradition by winning this year's National with Ballabriggs from their base at Cholmondeley in Cheshire, to where the McCains had moved in 1990.
In his often fiery manner, McCain had been critical of the great race in recent years, lamenting changes made to some of the fences on safety grounds. But the National's future seems secure -- for which McCain and Red Rum must take a hefty slice of the credit.