Racing: 'Sometimes I think, don't be so bloody greedy. But, Jesus, I'd love to win it again'

The Interview - Ginger McCain: The 72-year-old trainer will never forget his National treasure. Nick Townsend hears he might just have another Aintree winner
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The Independent Online

On Grand National day, probably when the crowds have long since drifted away, this year's victor is being acclaimed with the partaking of alcohol by backers and owners alike, and Aintree returns once more to the bleak, unprepossessing arena within the industrial hinterland of Liverpool, Ginger McCain will wander over to the tombstone near the water jump. He will pay his respects, have a quiet moment with an old friend.

On Grand National day, probably when the crowds have long since drifted away, this year's victor is being acclaimed with the partaking of alcohol by backers and owners alike, and Aintree returns once more to the bleak, unprepossessing arena within the industrial hinterland of Liverpool, Ginger McCain will wander over to the tombstone near the water jump. He will pay his respects, have a quiet moment with an old friend.

Eight years on from Red Rum's death, 26 years since his third National triumph, it will be, as always, a poignant moment for the veteran trainer, who on a fateful day in August 1972 speculated an owner's 6,000 guineas at Doncaster Sales and acquired a horse who has become synonymous with courage and resilience.

"If I'm anything, I've only got there on the back of Red Rum," declares McCain, who is now 72. "It was a humbling experience being involved with him. He was bigger and better than people. And far more honest than people. And with far more guts than 99 per cent of the population. He never did anything without having to work bloody hard to do it." He pauses as the words catch in his throat before adding quietly: "Good luck to the old lad."

When I last visited McCain (Donald is his real name) over 12 years ago, the family was still based at the stables-behind-car-showroom yard in Southport, which has contributed so much mystique to the Red Rum story. "Red" was alive then, and enjoying his retirement, not just from racing, but from public appearances.

We gave him an outing to the beach on which he had been trained so successfully in his pomp and, such was the old horse's eagerness, with the scent of salt in his nostrils and the wind howling like a chorus of demons, his demeanour was anything but that of an OAP. It was all McCain could do to restrain his charge from flying across the sands.

The same year, McCain and family – wife Beryl, son Donald Jnr and daughter Joanne – together with Red Rum, decamped to south Cheshire, and the Cholmondeley Estate, where the gallops are overlooked by the 19th-century Gothic castle. It was here that Red Rum breathed his last before being laid to rest at Aintree, buried facing the winning post.

On Saturday, many will pay homage to him as the horse who brought about a renaissance of the daunting equine marathon. This year, McCain, whose epithet might now more appropriately be Chalky rather than Ginger, is blessed with a decent chance again in the National with the 11-year-old Amberleigh House. "Sometimes I think, 'Well, you've won your share, don't be so bloody greedy'. But, Jesus, I'd love to win another one," he enthuses. "Or another two. Or be involved with him [he nods at Donald Jnr] training a winner of it."

His son appears to have as much chance of assuming the administration of Bankhouse from his father as Charles has of the Queen relinquishing her reign in favour of him. "Eventually, I'll hand over to him, but where's the hurry? Maybe if Amberleigh House wins at Aintree I'll say, 'Well, that's me finished, he can have the licence'," says McCain Snr. "Equally, I may say, 'Well, I'll just train one more Grand National winner and then he can have the licence'. Trouble is, if we have to wait as long as we have since the last bugger, the lad's going to be a senior citizen."

Amberleigh House knows Aintree. He won the Becher Chase, run over three miles three furlongs of the National course, last season and was second in the race this term. "I ain't going to say we're going to win it, but I wouldn't swap his chances for any horse in the race," says McCain. "We've backed him at 50-1, which is crazy. He's a proven Liverpool horse, and he'll be ridden by one of the best young jockeys in the country in Graham Lee."

McCain has long complained about the "softening" of the Aintree fences, which followed a number of equine fatalities. These days his sense of indignation has been largely assuaged. "They had destroyed the character of the race but, to be fair to the Aintree management, the fences have been stiffened up a bit," says a man who can be, in equal measures, gruffly intolerant and genially generous.

It would be fair to say that McCain would never be seconded for membership of the liberal urban élite. He has scant approval for most women trainers (although his congenial wife of 42 years, Beryl, is his assistant), and has always listed shooting and coursing among his interests. As for the animal-rights protesters who contributed to the problems in 1993, when the National culminated in a "void" race, his response is typically forthright: "When all those silly do-gooders sat down in front of the horses, I wish [Keith] Brown [the starter] had let the field go. That may be hard, but who the hell do they think they are, depriving 700 million people of that spectacle?"

It was in 1965 that McCain saddled his first winner, in a selling chase at Liverpool, with a horse named San Lorenzo, aged 14. A decent horse in his day, he had been racing in Ireland but had apparently broken down. McCain offered to take him. "I was full of it. I couldn't wait to tell Beryl. We had just got married – she was secretary to the borough architect at the time – and we were basically skint. 'If that horse comes, I go', she told me. I said, 'You'd better set off down the road then, because he's on the boat'." Beryl stayed, so did the horse. A successful career, and marriage, was born.

In the early days, though, much of McCain's income derived from private car hire. His clients included many stars of stage and screen, travelling to engagements from Southport. They included Frank Sinatra. "I drove that bugger to Blackpool. Can't say I was ever that impressed with him; I was impressed even less when I didn't get a bloody tip."

When Red Rum entered McCain's life, aged seven, it was never anticipated that he would win a Grand National. "We just hoped he'd run in it." By the time the horse retired, he had triumphed in three Nationals, the second under top weight, and been runner-up twice. In total, he won 27 races. "What a character. To stick to it as long as he did," McCain says. "Remember, he had 12 seasons in training overall, from a two-year-old to a 13-year-old. And he had a hard life. He was ridden by 24 different jockeys, from Lester Piggott downwards, and every jockey that would hit a horse hit Red Rum. Yet it didn't turn him into a thief. He never flunked it, and he had some hidings, make no mistake."

McCain adds: "[Brian] Fletcher [twice victorious on Red Rum] not only hit him, he hit him in all the wrong places. The horse would come back with welts down under the soft part of his belly, in front of his stifle. We had many a word about it. I threatened to do Fletcher properly one day. I said, 'If you ever hit my horse there again, Brian, I'll bury you'."

Fortunately, you submit, such action would be severely punished today. "You'd be locked up for ever," says McCain. "But jockeys were harder then. It was a tougher game. It's all gone soft. I don't advocate flogging horses, but in a driving finish, you're not telling me that they don't run for the whip."

Red Rum always flourished on the Southport sands, a chronic leg condition being eased by the therapeutic effect of the sea. His regular passage from the stables was a much-celebrated local event during the Seventies. "He would always walk up the middle of the road, though sideways on. It was like a gunman coming out on to the street in the Wild West and bystanders scurrying to the sidewalk. The road just emptied," recalls McCain. "And he would never put a foot wrong. That's why he was such a good Liverpool horse.

"We had Red Rum for 23 years and he was very special in our lives. He was good for us, but we were very good for him as well. He wouldn't have lasted in a big yard. No question of that. The strange thing was, I never rode him until he retired and he became my hack. I honestly think there was a bond between us. I don't want to sound boastful, but I think he appreciated me more than any other rider who was on him. People say, 'But he was only a horse'. He was, but he was unique."

Like McCain. In a horseracing world where characters are a diminishing species, they certainly don't breed them like him any more. More's the pity.

Biography: Donald 'Ginger' McCain

Born: 21 September 1930.

First winner: At Aintree in 1965.

Best known for: Being the man behind Grand National legend Red Rum, three-time winner of the race (1973, 1974 and 1977) and second in 1975 and 1976.

How it happened: McCain was a taxi-driver who ran a small stable behind a used-car showroom in Southport. He saw Red Rum race and noted his National potential. Bought the horse at the 1972 August Sales for 6,000 guineas. The rest, as they say, is history.

Since Red Rum: Best National result is 14th. Only three of his runners have finished the course.