Donald McCain was watching on television at his grandmother's house when the horse his father trained, Red Rum, won a record third Grand National in April 1977. He was six years old, and it is still his earliest memory. Tomorrow, he has a chance to lodge some similar memories in the minds of his own young children, for he is the trainer of Cloudy Lane, the hot favourite to win this year's National.
If Cloudy Lane meets expectations round Aintree then the McCain family will have their fifth triumph in the venerable steeplechase, following Red Rum's three wins and that of Amberleigh House four years ago. My Colourful Life: From Red to Amber is the pleasing title of the autobiography of Donald McCain senior, universally known as Ginger, but in it he gives his son much of the credit for Amberleigh House following in the hoofmarks of the great Red Rum. Whether it is as much credit as Donald deserves is another matter. The only person in racing who questions whether he is a better trainer than his old man is Donald himself, who has saddled almost 100 winners since he took over his father's licence less than two years ago. He has some previous in rising to the big occasion, too, having sent out Whiteoak, a 20-1 shot, to win on Gold Cup day at last month's Cheltenham Festival and Cloudy Lane himself to win an amateur riders' event at the previous year's Festival.
Still, McCain would be the first to admit that his dad has set him up nicely. For years Ginger's yard was one of the least salubrious imaginable, squeezed behind his second-hand car showroom on Upper Aughton Road in Birkdale, Southport. It was emphatically not the posh bit of Birkdale where the famous golf club is located, either.
However, in 1990 he moved, lock, stock and bale, to Bankhouse, a former dairy farm occupying 192 acres of rolling south Cheshire countryside, on the huge Cholmondeley estate just north of Whitchurch. It is there, in a farmhouse kitchen suffused with the smell of sizzling bacon, that I meet both father and son, although it would be stretching a point to call my encounter with 77-year-old Ginger a meeting, exactly. The old misanthrope looks down his prodigious nose at me and mutters to Donald that "you should be charging the bugger for your time". He then wanders over to watch the racing on TV, leaving me with McCain the younger, and infinitely the more affable.
He asks whether I mind conducting the interview in his Land Rover up on the gallops, which is what we do, and while he watches his horses I am presented with his left profile. If in personality he resembles his father hardly at all, he at least has the old man's hooter.
I ask him to what extent Red Rum loomed over his childhood? "Completely," he says. "I mostly grew up with Red retired, and he was a massive part of the family. I came second to him, but that just seemed like the natural order of things. He was always in the first box outside the kitchen, and I always knew that a hell of a lot of what we did was down to him." While Ginger had been educated at Farnborough Road primary school (as was I, as it happens) and Birkdale Secondary Modern, Donald went to a correct little prep school in Formby and on to Merchant Taylors' in Crosby. Red Rum paid the fees.
Initially, his sister Joanne showed more interest in horses, but by the age of 12 McCain was riding out as often as possible, and the day after he finished his last O-Level he started work at Luca Cumani's yard in Newmarket – probably not a career the masters at Merchant Taylor's had in mind for their boys, though one wonders how many of his school contemporaries have been more successful. McCain worked for two years as Cumani's pupil-assistant, but surprised the Italian-born trainer by insisting that he wanted to ride. A big man, it was a perennial struggle to make the weight, yet he rode, mostly as an amateur, for 10 seasons. In 600 or so rides he had around 40 winners, and was placed at Cheltenham one year. "I certainly wasn't the best in the world," he says, "but I had one ride in the National – in 1996, the year Rough Quest won – and I got round, even though I finished well back. I did 10st as well. That was the hardest part."
He is certain that his experience as a jockey helps him as a trainer, in particular experience as only a so-so jockey. "They say that top jockeys don't make the best trainers and I think that's right. Obviously there are exceptions like Fred Winter, Jonjo [O'Neill] and so on, but the top jockeys are just getting on and off horses all day, not having to deal with them when they get home, like I did. It's no surprise to me that those who do become trainers say they get more pleasure from training a winner than riding one, because so much more goes into it. The best jockeys have a one-dimensional view. They get off the horse and say it's not fit enough, or whatever, without taking anything else into the equation."
McCain appears to have the equation spot on, saddling as many winners in some weeks as his father accumulated in some seasons. Yet he bridles slightly when I venture that he is the superior horseman.
"Look, we've got a nice set-up here, and dad's still very much a big part of it. He's a very good buyer of horses, for one thing." Witness, I say, 6,000 guineas for a spirited bay, whose name backwards spelled "murder", at Doncaster sales in the summer of 1972. "Yeah. A lot of people call dad a one-horse trainer, but he doesn't mind that. He says, 'If I only had one good horse, what a good job I made of him.' And he's great at attracting owners. A lot of them enjoy his company, and while I'm up here on the gallops, they're down there sitting with the old man. That suits me fine. Obviously, we're very different in personality. Am I like I am because he's like he is? Maybe. I'd love to be more like him in some ways. He stands up for what he believes and very little bothers him. Some people don't take to him, but you usually find they're not worth bothering with anyway."
None the less, some of the less politically correct of old Ginger's utterances down the years – for instance when he offered to bare his backside in public if Carrie Ford, "a brood mare", were to win the National on Forest Gunner – must have made his son wince?
"Very much so, but a lot of the time he gets it right, you know. When Amberleigh couldn't get into the National because of his rating, dad reacted and people thought he was ranting, but he was dead right. His point was that a lot of horses that year had no conceivable chance of jumping Aintree, but were getting in purely because their handicap mark was higher. He said that some horses that lose their form on park courses – like Red Rum – come alive when Aintree comes around, and should be given extra weight to allow them to get into the National. That's what happens now. Phil Smith [the official handicapper] allows for horses proven round Aintree."
All of which brings us to Cloudy Lane, the eight-year-old gelding owned by the Blackpool Tower magnate Trevor Hemmings. Cloudy Lane's ante-post price on the day I meet McCain is the shortest there has ever been 10 days before a Grand National. "I think the price is wrong, no horse should ever be 6-1 for a Grand National, but there's not much the bookmakers can do," he says.
I ask him how he thinks Cloudy Lane compares with Red Rum, some of whose mane he will have plaited into his headband tomorrow, the McCains being as superstitious as they are sentimental where their legendary champion is concerned? "Red was in a league of his own," he says, gazing wistfully into the middle-distance. "He was a phenomenon as a person as well as a horse, if you know what I mean. Cloudy has more similarities with Amberleigh. Neither is over-big, and not the classiest either, but tough, workmanlike. Cloudy's grand. He gets a little gassy sometimes, a little nervy in his horsebox, but only because he wants to get on with the job."
It speaks volumes for McCain that he has made a Grand National favourite of a horse he considers to be "not the classiest", although he is too modest to ascribe this to his training skills.
"I don't think it's done me any harm that I've had to deal with a type of horse that a lot of big trainers wouldn't contemplate. If you can win with moderate horses, you learn to appreciate the good ones. We've as nice a bunch as we've ever had now, and we're starting to compete at or maybe just off the highest level, but we're still not in the major league. No sour grapes but you see some trainers with owners who've got lots of money to spend, give it to the trainer to buy a horse for them but the horse turns out no good, so they give him the same money again to buy another one."
McCain watches several of his own horses canter by, and leans out of the car window to yell instructions. "We don't have many owners here," he adds, "but those we have are a smashing bunch, and one of them, John Glews, has become our yard sponsor. He's one of the owners who came along after Amberleigh. He hadn't had a horse before, but he's become a good friend and a good owner, and he's a big part of the way things have gone. We like to do the right thing by our owners. If we've got a new owner we want to get them to the races straight away, give them something to shout about. After that we'll buy something they can maybe name and follow it through. They could end up with a decent horse or one that's no good, but they'll enjoy the journey."
He switches the engine on and we head back to the yard. As we crest a hill, with the Cholmondeley estate looking resplendent in the warm spring sunshine, I observe that it's all a long way from Upper Aughton Road.
He chuckles. "Yeah. I wouldn't say it's a well-kept secret but not a lot of people know what we've got here." And do they miss anything about Birkdale? After all, they used to gallop Red Rum along miles and miles of golden – oh all right, sludge-coloured – Southport sand. In those parts they still say it was the beach that made a three-times Grand National winner of him.
"We miss the sea more than the sand," McCain says. "The sea was an underestimated factor in what dad did up there. We'd have any number of bumps, bangs, knocks, cuts, sore shins, splints, which here could take two weeks to settle down, but only a couple of days in the sea. I wish we could bottle enough of it. These equine spas cost £20,000, which we can't afford here, but basically they just do what the sea did. The sand was good too, of course. People said 'you can't train on sand', but now 70 per cent of trainers do just that. And that was the best sand gallop there's ever been, because it was natural. They're even racing on sand now."
So Ginger was a visionary? A huge laugh. "No, he just had nowhere else to go."
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