Racing: Ginger's revival brings the house down

Grand National: The trainer for all seasons reigns again - and he thought it would never happen in a million years

Justly, the clock turned back three decades here yesterday to a golden age. Amberleigh House won the 157th Grand National and in doing so gave his trainer, Ginger McCain, forever associated with Red Rum, his fourth victory in the race. And it was that now legendary triple hero who virtually singlehandedly revived the fortunes and standing of a now-thriving sporting institution that was then ailing and failing. Rummy is buried near the winning post and his shade would undoubtedly approve of his old guv'nor's latest moment in the sun.

Justly, the clock turned back three decades here yesterday to a golden age. Amberleigh House won the 157th Grand National and in doing so gave his trainer, Ginger McCain, forever associated with Red Rum, his fourth victory in the race. And it was that now legendary triple hero who virtually singlehandedly revived the fortunes and standing of a now-thriving sporting institution that was then ailing and failing. Rummy is buried near the winning post and his shade would undoubtedly approve of his old guv'nor's latest moment in the sun.

McCain, 73, his eponymous hair now white, was understandably overcome as he welcomed Amberleigh House, a 16-1 shot, and rider Graham Lee back to the winner's circle where he had stood almost as a matter of course in times past. "The horse's owner told me I was getting a doddering old bastard, and it was time I won another National," he said, "but I never, ever thought this would happen again, not in a million years, never mind 27. I thought I was getting too old for the game."

The owner, locally-based businessman John Halewood, was choking, too. "He's a lion, a lion," he repeated, rather like Paul Scofield in A Man For All Seasons. It was not entirely clear whether he was referring to horse or trainer.

True to the National's heritage, the victory was steeped in drama. Amberleigh House, who finished third last year, appeared again destined for a minor role as he came to the last of the 30 obstacles in fourth place, 10 lengths adrift of Hedgehunter, Lord Atterbury and Clan Royal. But Hedgehunter, who had blazed such a thrilling trail, crashed to the ground and then, extraordinarily, Clan Royal headed straight for the Chair fence, instead of right-handed towards the Elbow and the funnel to the £348,000 first prize.

Just in time Liam Cooper, who had lost his whip when his mount, one of three 10-1 co-favourites, blundered five out and was riding a head-down, arms-pumping finish, realised his error and hauled the leader back on course, but lost lengths, and more importantly momentum, in the process. He regained the initiative from Lord Atterbury (40-1) but had no answer as Amberleigh House came past with a wet sail to score by three lengths.

The result was a triumph for experience over these unique fences. In addition to his National third Amberleigh House, a 12-year-old, had won a Becher Chase and run second in two others. In the latest of those, last November, he had been short-headed by the Jonjo O'Neill-trained Clan Royal, who had previously won the Topham Trophy. Fourth home was last year's winner, Monty's Pass, and the three who followed him in, Spot Thedifference, Smarty and Ardent Scout, had all jumped round here before.

Amberleigh House's passage this time was not without its moments. Lee rode him from off the pace this year - he seemed to run out of steam 12 months ago after a more prominent showing - but the tactic proved fraught with risk. At the fourth obstacle the old horse had to show nimbleness of which Red Rum would have been proud with a sidestep round a fallen rival and then ran into traffic at Becher's. "To win is a dream," Lee, a 28-year-old Irishman, said, "but it was a nightmare down the first line [of fences]. I had to jump Becher's from a standstill and I promise you eight out of 10 horses couldn't have done what he did. But I just sat and punted gently away until he got his confidence back. I didn't want to get after him because he's got only one run."

Up front Hedgehunter had taken the race by the scruff from the off and led his 38 rivals a fine dance for almost two circuits. When he took his tired, hard fall, McCain's uncharitable post-race comment that he had been willing the three leaders to go down looked as if it might haunt him as the Irish raider lay inert on the ground at the last. But the horse, whose boldness had made such a contribution to the spectacle, was only winded and got up to a huge cheer.

"I know it was not very sporting of me," said McCain. "But I thought three out that Graham had given ours too much to do. But he's a great little horse round here, foot-perfect, a professional. He's positive, he's exact and he's the best thing that has happened to me for a long, long time."

Amberleigh House, along with well-fancied Joss Naylor, was pick of the paddock on a dull day that put a premium on inner glow. But the Irish-bred gelding's looks had not always been so prepossessing. "I'd seen him win at Punchestown," said McCain, "but when he arrived with us I went out in my dressing gown and saw this little timid, miserable horse shivering in a corner. I couldn't believe it was the one we'd paid £75,000 for."

McCain has been based for the past 13 years at Malpas in Cheshire, where son Donald is his assistant. "I shall be eternally grateful to John [Halewood]. But the credit really goes to Donald. He has lived this horse and rides him in all his work. He has the patience I haven't got any more."

Eleven finished, no horse was hurt and the others who deserve mention in dispatches for getting round are Bear On Board, Kingsmark, The Bunny Boiler and Davids Lad. They did not include the other co-favourites: Tony McCoy's mount, Jurancon, came down at the fourth, the 2002 winner Bindaree and Carl Llewellyn were brought down at the first Becher's, and Joss Naylor was pulled up at the 19th.

'You can take me round the corner and shoot me now'

It's just a fairytale, a dream - he was just so tough. I didn't have a very good passage over the first six fences with loose horses. He had to jump Becher's from a standstill first time round and he got a bit of a fright, but I just hunted away on him. He was so brave and all I had to do was steer. Graham Lee, jockey of Amberleigh House

I have tried ever since the old horse [Red Rum] went to try and get a good little horse to come here. I've got one, and he's done it. You can take me round the corner and shoot me now. Donald 'Ginger' McCain, 73, trainer of Red Rum and Amberleigh House

He ran his heart out. He beat the horses around him and suddenly one comes from the pack, but that's what it's about. Grand Nationals change from the last fence to the line. J P McManus, owner of Clan Royal

He gave me a fantastic ride. I'm delighted for Amberleigh House and Graham Lee, to be honest, we beat them in the Becher Chase. I'm sick as a pig, but also delighted to have done so well. I lost my whip but it didn't make a difference. In fact I think it helped. Liam Cooper, jockey of Clan Royal

It was fantastic to get a finisher. He has left his Cheltenham form behind and Mark [Bradburne] gave him a fantastic ride. He's still a young horse and there's a lot to look forward to. David Johnson, owner of Lord Atterbury

He ran a blinder with a big weight. It was unbelievable. He jumped marvellous. I couldn't be more happy. The rain just came at the wrong time for him. I'll be back next year for sure and he'll be trained especially for the race - he loves it around here. Jimmy Mangan, trainer of Monty's Pass

It was a combination of the weight and the ground that beat him. He is a much better horse on fast ground, but you can't have that every year. Barry Geraghty, jockey of Monty's Pass

He was probably just going too well and had to do too much in front. He didn't deserve to fall. I am disappointed, but more so for the horse. He just tired and gave me everything all the way. Let's hope he'll be back. David Casey, jockey of Hedgehunter

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