Racing: They thought the horse and the trainer were too old . . .

Grand National: Day for the romantics at Aintree as McCain strikes gold again
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The Independent Online

At the moment when Amberleigh House and his jockey, Graham Lee, began to deliver that decisive, lung-searing assault on Clan Royal and Lord Atterbury, who had led the field past the Elbow, it evoked memories of a visit to McCain's south Cheshire stables a year ago, just before last year's National. McCain remarked in that dark, don't-dare-cross-me manner of his: "This [Amberleigh House] has got a serious chance. He was knocked over in the National first time [in 2001]. I do think that he needs to creep, creep and be held up for one good long run."

At the moment when Amberleigh House and his jockey, Graham Lee, began to deliver that decisive, lung-searing assault on Clan Royal and Lord Atterbury, who had led the field past the Elbow, it evoked memories of a visit to McCain's south Cheshire stables a year ago, just before last year's National. McCain remarked in that dark, don't-dare-cross-me manner of his: "This [Amberleigh House] has got a serious chance. He was knocked over in the National first time [in 2001]. I do think that he needs to creep, creep and be held up for one good long run."

He finished third. Respectable enough. And that, we believed, was that, a kind of consolation prize for McCain in the declining years of his career, we thought. And yes, we probably did so a touch patronisingly. Aged 12 this time, the years appeared against the dark gelding as they did against his trainer.

But if ever a man knows that, in this 36-furlong slog, class, stature, and logic frequently count for nothing it is McCain. You won't convince many of the near-71,000 crowd here yesterday that this was not pre-ordained. Who among them, as Lee clenched a fist in triumph, did not cast a glance towards the grave of Red Rum, the three-times Grand National winner, who is buried here facing the winning post, speculating on what part "Rummie" may have played? That is what Aintree does to you.

Yet, what a gamut of emotions McCain, that possessor of those gloriously bucolic features, had to endure before he could relish the victory with the horse's owner, John Halewood, and receive the genuinely heartfelt congratulations of the Princess Royal. No wonder, after a finale to the race which drew comparison with Red Rum's eclipse of Crisp, that McCain admitted, as the eyes dampened and the words were in danger of catching in his throat: "I think I'm too old for that."

Early last year, McCain had been called into hospital for investigations into an irregular heartbeat. The medics found nothing too much amiss, which was perhaps just as well considering what the old fellow's cardiovascular system went through here on an afternoon when, the terrifically game gelding, "a thorough professional" according to 73-year-old McCain, transformed a seemingly hopeless position into a fourth victory in the race for the trainer.

The bookmakers' representatives had been cockahoop as the fancied runners departed and afterwards one representative, Coral's Simon Clare, observed: "This is another great result for bookies as only the romantics will have backed Amberleigh House." Perhaps so, although at 16-1 the son of Buckskin was not without his supporters. Certainly, few of those whose allegiance lay elsewhere will have begrudged McCain his moment. Certainly not the magnanimous J P McManus, owner of the runner-up, Clan Royal, who declared: "It was a great win for Ginger. Full marks to him. He's getting to own Aintree."

That he is, and yet it seemed that his time would never come again once he and his family - Beryl, his wife of 43 years, son Donald Jnr and daughter Joanne - with, of course, a by-then retired Red Rum, upped from Southport, where it all began in stables behind a second-hand car showroom and decamped to Cheshire and the Cholmondeley Estate, where the gallops are overlooked by a 19th century Gothic castle. It was here that Red Rum, who ran 110 times, won 27 and was placed 48 times, breathed his last before being laid to rest at Aintree.

But McCain has persevered, and lost none of his idiosyncratic, chauvinistic and occasionally downright curmudgeonly attitude to life. Believe me, don't even get him started on the subject of women trainers. Even yesterday, he couldn't resist a niggle at his favourite target. "John's [Halewood's] wife, Judy, used to train and ran Harley, who finished 12th in the 1991 National. I told him if I'd trained the horse he'd have won. You shouldn't let women mess around with racehorses."

Which is not to say that women do not have their place in the McCain order of things. Describing how Amberleigh House had been bought by Halewood in Ireland, McCain added: "I went over to see the horse and the woman who was selling him had the greatest legs I've ever seen. I'm a great legs man and I couldn't resist. I came home and let John do the deal..."

If there was any justice, the yard would already have been entrusted to Donald Jnr. Not a hope for the lad. Except you could no longer describe him as that. As McCain told me last year: "Sometimes I think, 'well, you've won your share, don't be so bloody greedy'. But Jesus, I'd love to win another National. Or another two. Or be involved with him [nodding at Donald Jnr] training a winner of it."

Any particular time in mind? I asked. "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'. 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." Yesterday, McCain Snr had evidently not revised his intentions. "Bugger it, he can wait," he insisted. "After all, Fred Rimell won four, so we'll come back next year and make it five."

You wouldn't argue with that forecast, either. Believe me, with Ginger McCain you don't even bother. Yesterday, he made those of us who had been irresponsible enough to believe "they never come back" fools yet again.

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