It is not often you can say so at this stage of the season, but yesterday I saw the Grand National winner.
His name was Red Marauder and he was standing in the wind at Brancepeth Manor Farm, high above Durham. Some considered he had the look of eagles and was aware of his celebrity as the first of only two horses to yomp without interruption through the quagmire of Aintree last April. Others thought he looked cold.
Red Marauder may run the Grand National again next spring, or he may never run again. He breaks blood vessels, has had ulcers and bad legs, and any recurrence of those problems will prompt immediate retirement. However, the old fool is not doing his cause any great help, suggesting that he is still full of vim by adopting the pose of the Ferrari horse in his paddock.
"I always said that if he never ran again it would not bother me," Norman Mason, the gelding's owner/trainer, said yesterday. "I'd like to let you know that we would not do anything that would endanger or ruin him.
"But he's in a great form in himself and if we can get him right and the ground is right he will run the National next year. You can see him up on his back legs like a bucking bronco in the paddock at the back here. When he goes out into the field he is always the boss, chasing the other horses around the place.
"It doesn't do his legs any good, but you've got to turn him out. Can't keep him inside. He's not the sort of horse you can keep bottled up. With spirit and heart like that I would like to run him. He's a very special horse."
Norman is enjoying himself now, but then just about his whole life has been built on hedonism. Mostly that of other people.
The Mason mighty fortunes derived from night-clubs, bars, bingo halls and amusement centres, largely in his native north-east, but also in the hot spots of Bootle, Preston and Leigh. The 65-year-old owner supervises some 40 of these outlets from underneath a reddish Arthur Scargill haircut, but it is not perhaps salubrious to point out the incongruity of his coiffure.
He got into the night-club business after bouncing at front of house. His empire began with a congregational hall in his home town of Sunderland. It should have held about 150 people, but Mason managed to squeeze in an extra 350. "I kept worrying that the floor might fall out," he said.
Mason had horses with Gordon Richards and George Moore, but eventually decided the trainer he had most faith in was himself. He bought Brancepeth Manor 10 years ago and started naming horses with the red prefix when he learned the Chinese considered the colour to confer good luck.
Norman's greatest fortune, though, was when he recruited the National Hunt jockey Richard Guest to manage his horses. Guest, in fact, trains the entire string of 30. Mason steps onto the gallops a couple of days a week and conducts a similar number of official meetings with Guesty. Red Marauder's jockey does the rest.
"Richard's first words to me were: 'If I come up there and work for you it's got to be done my way. I don't want any interference. I'll run the yard and you collect the silver'," Mason said. "My reply was climb on board boy, you're just the fellow I want."
The Mason specification for the horse is no thing of pulchritude, this seemed to be much in evidence yesterday as he trotted the horses out of the main stable block and down a concrete ramp into the yard. Norman's preferred animal is spared visits to the beautician and does not emerge from under the hair dryer.
The epitome of the Brancepeth Manor Farm horse is something between rust and orange in colour, a rugged beast with no pretension of aesthetics. But then Mason made his money out of one-armed bandits and bingo cards, and is driven more by effect than cause.
It pleases the owner that Red Marauder's victory on Merseyside perfumed his name on his native Wearside. He received a presentation from the Mayor of Durham and also rather grandly dedicated his win to Sunderland. There was a victory parade, in front of 10,000 people he says, and a donation of the big-race trophy, which is now housed in a showcase in Sunderland's Civic Centre. The one on Mason's mantelpiece is counterfeit.
The joy that success at Liverpool brought him is all too real, however. It is a rush he would like to course through his body once more. "Winning the Grand National has been the highlight of my career," he said. "It has been the most wonderful experience of my life. I have enjoyed it so much that I want to do it again."
Ascot entry for Mate
Best Mate heads seven entries for the First National Gold Cup Chase at Ascot on Saturday. The six-year-old was very impressive when winning the Grade Two Haldon Gold Cup at Exeter earlier this month.
His six potential rivals on Saturday, a £50,000 Grade Two race over two miles three and a half furlongs, are Wahiba Sands (trained by Martin Pipe), Dusk Duel (Nicky Henderson), Jolly Green Giant, Redemption (both Paul Webber), Logician (Ian Balding) and Father McCarten (Mark Pitman).
Best Mate heads the weights in this limited intermediate handicap on 11st 10lb.Reuse content