Racing: McCain has teenage ambitions for House

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The Independent Online

Horses for courses is a truism more appropriate at Aintree than anywhere and even if the latest Grand National winner, Amberleigh House, never jumps another fence at the unique venue where he is scheduled to tackle 22 in the Becher Chase on Sunday, he has already beaten one of the feats of his famous predecessor in the care of trainer Ginger McCain Red Rum.

Horses for courses is a truism more appropriate at Aintree than anywhere and even if the latest Grand National winner, Amberleigh House, never jumps another fence at the unique venue where he is scheduled to tackle 22 in the Becher Chase on Sunday, he has already beaten one of the feats of his famous predecessor in the care of trainer Ginger McCain Red Rum.

The three-time National hero, successful in 1973, 1974 and 1977 and second in the intervening years, cleared 150 of the big fences. In seven visits to run in three Nationals, three Becher Chases and a Topham, Amberleigh House has crossed 151. But he has a way to go to catch the horse who must be counted the king. Manifesto ran in the National eight times between 1895 and 1904, for two wins, four places and 211 leaps.

To match that, Amberleigh House must not only complete on Sunday, but again next April, and then come back for another Becher Chase in 12 months time. And by then, the gelding will be pushing 14. McCain, however, is confident that age will prove no more a barrier to success than the spruce mountains when he sends his veteran into battle again in the spring, despite the fact that only three teenagers have won, 15-year-old Peter Simple in 1853, and two 13-year-olds, Why Not in 1894 and Sergeant Murphy in 1923. And gallant Manifesto was himself 15 when he came third in 1903.

"Amberleigh House is rising 13 now," he said yesterday, "and I know only two horses of that age have won the race before. But I do think it will be three by next year." The 74-year-old trainer expanded the theme by recalling the events leading to the 1978 National, which was to have been Red Rum's sixth, at the age of 13. "The old horse had to miss it at the last minute, but he'd have nearly won it, you know," he added. "The Pilgarlic, who was beaten about 48 lengths the year before, finished right behind Lucius that year and even though Red was slowing down a bit, I don't think he would have gone backwards by that much."

McCain was speaking as Amberleigh House, looking in fine fettle, paraded before the media at his yard near the Cheshire village of Cholmondley. He expects a serious run from John Halewood's grand horse in the race he won three years ago and has finished runner-up in the past twice, most recently going down by a short-head to Clan Royal, subsequently his immediate National victim.

It will be Amberleigh House's third run of the campaign, a dull seasonal debut over hurdles having been followed my an encouraging fourth-placed effort at Wetherby 17 days ago, over far too short a distance. After Sunday, he will have a break before building up to the big one on 9 April. "He was very disappointing on his first run, but I don't think he's got a lot of enthusiasm for hurdles any more as he's such an old pro," said McCain. "I tried to look for the better points from that run but couldn't see them. So it was a great relief when he ran a much better race at Wetherby, staying on really well. I'm actually not bothered if he doesn't win on Sunday, I'd just like him to run a good race so we can put him on ice for the big race. He'll have one or two races to bring him back up to his peak."

There's no nonsense about Ginger McCain, which is not inappropriate given the National's new sponsors John Smith. The brewery firm's input means the race's prize fund will be a richest-ever £700,000 next year. "I'm told that Clan Royal will probably be going to Liverpool cold," he said, "but you don't win Grand Nationals going there without a prep. However professional you are you need to have gone over some jumps just to get your rhythm right." Are you listening, Jonjo?

McCain has every right to his opinion; he equalled Fred Rimell's tally of four Nationals when Graham Lee brought Amberleigh House home seven months ago. "I don't think about records," he said, "but it would be nice to win it one more time. But Fred Rimell, a great trainer, did it with four different horses, and I've had only two."

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