Ginger McCain: Mr Aintree

Whether he be the saint of Aintree or the devil, you would need a heart of flint not to cheer with tears in your eyes BY CHRIS McGRATH
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The Independent Online

People have never been able to work out whether Ginger McCain is an institution, or whether he should be locked up in one. And that suits him just fine. The day they know when to take him seriously, and when they are merely being provoked, is the day he will give up. As it happens, that day is today.

At 75, McCain is saddling three runners in his final John Smith's Grand National: Amberleigh House, Ebony Light and Inca Trail. Should any of them happen to win - and you can have 20-1 against the possibility with the bookmakers - he would claim outright an Aintree record he currently shares with Fred Rimell, who also won the race four times.

In the 1970s, McCain trained Red Rum, who became one of the immortals of the Turf by winning it three times. Then, two years ago, he came up with Amberleigh House.

In the intervening 27 years, the suspicion had developed that Red Rum was a freak who stumbled into unique, capricious harmony with his oddball trainer. In truth, McCain did not always discourage that assumption. As the years went on, the horses he ran at Aintree had seemed steadily less deserving, while his opinions grew steadily more outrageous.

As he approaches retirement, however, McCain is finally being understood by a sport that has tended to treat him like a cherished but batty old uncle. True, he has a heedless relish for being misunderstood. He has always loved to explore the margins between candour and self-parody. But if people now begin to recognise the mischief of his fulmination against the effete ways of the 21st century, then they have also come to accept that he deserves to be taken seriously as a trainer. Not just because of that fourth success, with Amberleigh House, but also because his final season has been by far the most prosperous of his career.

As the trainer of Red Rum, his name was synonymous with one of the most quixotic sporting adventures of the last century. By the time he won his third National, the whole country knew that Red Rum was stabled in a cobbled yard behind a car showroom in Southport, and that he was trained on the beach by a former taxi driver, who had once taken Frank Sinatra around the town in search of a hairbrush. "An insignificant little man," McCain remembers. "I always thought Bing Crosby was better."

It had taken McCain 12 years to win his first race - a selling plate, the worst type of contest there is - and he would typically have had no more than two dozen horses in his care at any time. Red Rum seemed a pure aberration.

But McCain is certain that the horse could never have achieved as much elsewhere. In his boyhood, he had seen how the old horses pulling shrimpers' carts in the bay renewed their crippled limbs in the salt water. "In a normal, run-of-the-mill training centre, Red Rum would never have lasted," he said. "I needed him, but he needed Ginger McCain, and he needed Southport."

He insists that he was never vexed by the assumption that he was a one-horse trainer. "I couldn't give a toss," he said. "We always knew we were capable of doing it, if we had the right horse. If I only had one horse, didn't I make a cracking job of it? Truly it didn't bother me. But when we won the fourth National, where in the old days we'd all have been whooping, it was pure satisfaction."

With Amberleigh House the wheel had turned full circle, and that is why he now feels the time is right to hand over to his son, Donald. True, the transfer is largely a formality. McCain gives Donald much of the credit for that fourth success, but equally he fully intends to make himself a daily nuisance on the gallops. Either way, with 32 winners this season, the pair of them have handsomely surpassed anything he ever managed in the 1970s.

Typically, McCain manages to find cause for exasperation even in the yard's success, because it does not suit his belief that standards have declined among stable grooms. "The horses are running out of their skins and I don't know why," he said. "I go to the racecourse and they have got coats on them like seals, bloody beautiful coats, and I can't accept it, I can't believe it, because they're not being done as they should be done. The truth of it must be that the others are being done bloody terrible."

If you wince at his idea of good labour relations, then he has only just begun. His wife, Beryl, hovers forbiddingly whenever she senses that Ginger is finding his most belligerent stride. She once mended one of his dentures with Super Glue. Sometimes she wishes that she had applied it to his lips instead, as when a throwaway remark about the competence of women riders before the National last year was greeted with widespread indignation.

As always when the press devours his bait, McCain must have been delighted. "I stick my tongue in my cheek and wind them up," he said. "When they ask you bloody silly questions, you tell them absolute crap and they take you seriously."

Still, there is no mistaking his authentic horror of the new century's delicate sensibilities. He cannot believe that anyone is seriously expected to respect health and safety officers or foxes, never mind women - women, who have broken out of the kitchen and even get in his way on the racecourse, as stewards, judges, starters.

"Woman starter? Like that silly cow with the hat and the skirt," he said. (It is not clear what she is supposed to wear instead.) "People like that poncing around. How can men have any respect for things like that? There are women I respect. I can't think of any, apart from the Queen, but there must be."

McCain gleefully records that his friend, Harvey Smith, advised him to get rid of Beryl because she is too old to breed, and too savage to keep as a pet. He can go on like this for hours, and some people react like a cat meeting a bulldog, arching their backs and hissing. But it is far more sensible to sit back and enjoy the show.

A few days before we spoke, a meeting had been abandoned because the track doctors were needed to escort a young jockey to hospital. "All right, it's sad the boy got kicked," McCain said. "He's got a broken nose, cracked a cheekbone, perhaps. But you can swallow a lot of blood before it kills you. In the old days, jockeys were expendable. We didn't call off meetings if one got hurt. We wrapped them up, slung them in the ditch, and buried them if they started to smell. All these safety precautions on racecourses - railed off here, railed off there, in case somebody gets kicked. Bloody hell, let a few of them get kicked. They'd keep out of the way then. It's gone right over the top, it has."

He yearns for the days when half the globe was coloured red, when cavalry officers brought their habits of discipline and decision-making to the racecourse, when the Waterloo Cup drew bigger crowds to the Northwest than even the National. Now coursing has been banned, and Aintree itself might not have survived without Red Rum.

"What can you respect these days?" he asked. "You're not allowed to believe in yourself, in your country, anything." But then he shrugs. He does not expect to turn back the tide. "That's part and parcel of life," he said. "Things go like that, from the Romans onward."

His consolation is that, so long as anyone has any interest in the National, his name will endure. What he can never understand is why it seemed to be forgotten during the years after Red Rum. Sixteen years ago, he was forced to leave Southport. Bureaucrats would not let him do what he wanted with the old yard. Eventually they would not let him do what he wanted on the beach, either, because he might endanger the habitat of natterjack toads. And he was struggling. The most profitable horse in his care, despite retirement, remained Red Rum.

McCain now feels that adversity made him a better trainer. "They say good horses make good trainers, and they do to a point," he said. "But anybody can train good horses. You've got to struggle through all your bad-legged horses, your moderate horses. Winning a seller with a cripple - that's very satisfying. I have never been jealous of anybody: not for their women, or their money. But I have envied people nice horses."

In his autobiography, McCain wrote that he had failed to match other trainers in the gentle art of "kissing bottoms and bullshitting". He confessed: "I don't think I have ever been considered a really good trainer within the racing world."

Since renting stables in the classical parkland of Cholmondeley Castle, in Cheshire, McCain has firmly redressed that perception. If it seemed an exotic contrast to the back streets of Southport, his horses seem to have gone upmarket, too. After Amberleigh House won, however, McCain could not stifle a stab of guilt when he left Aintree and turned left instead of right.

His ambition today is not particularly to win, though he will make a stubborn case for all three runners, but to savour the valediction. Pursued by microphones and film crews, he will reliably play to his audience - top of the bill in every sitting room in the land: Ginger McCain, National institution. He will tell people how his final Aintree ambition is to live long enough to see one of his grandsons "turn arse-over-tit at the last open ditch". And he will tell them precisely where they can put the tweed of Cheltenham and the silk of Ascot. "This is a people's place and a people's race," he will say. "And I bloody love it."

Of course, the National being the National, he could easily go and win it. Perhaps his last laugh will prove the loudest of all. And whether you consider him the patron saint of Aintree, or the devil incarnate, you would need a heart of flint not to cheer with tears in your eyes.

A Life in Brief

BORN 21 September 1930.

FAMILY Married in 1961 to Beryl. Two children, Joanne and Donald.

CAREER Took out a permit in 1952 to train his own horses behind the garage of his motor trade business premises at Southport. Trained for 12 years before sending out his first winner, San Lorenzo, in a selling chase at Aintree on 2 January 1965. Became a public trainer in 1969. Moved to Bankhouse Stables, Cholmondeley, near Malpas, Cheshire, in 1990. Biggest winners: Aintree Grand National four times: Red Rum (1973, 1974 and 1977) and Amberleigh House (2004). Scottish Grand National: Red Rum (1974).

HE SAYS "I'll be remembered as having trained the winners of four Nationals. I'd have settled for being head lad at a good-quality stable, but I've had some luck."

"Horses do not win Grand Nationals ridden by women. Carrie is a grand lass, but she's a brood mare now." - on the female jockey Carrie Ford.

THEY SAY "Ginger is Ginger." - Carrie Ford