Great Sporting Moments: Red Rum's third Grand National win, Aintree, 2 April, 1977
Few triumphs have warmed so many hearts as Red Rum's third famous victory at Aintree. Chris McGrath celebrates one of the great sporting fairy tales
Friday 17 July 2009
It was the man with the cauliflower all over his shoe that Ginger McCain would always remember. Brown brogues, he was wearing, and one of them was in the middle of his dinner.
To this day, McCain regrets that he could not linger to see the man's face when he finally sat down to resume his meal. But the next moment the image was left behind, another blur in the bedlam, as cheers, yells and applause echoed round the ballroom.
For those present, this was the surreal ceremony that most succinctly condensed the greatest epic in steeplechasing history – the moment when Red Rum was led by his trainer down a horsebox ramp, and straight into the Bold Hotel on the main street in Southport. Five hours earlier, the horse had won his third Grand National, and so been carved indelibly into the pantheon of the Turf. And now here he was, followed off the street by half the population of Southport, crashing his own party.
It was the evening of 2 April 1977. Even for those of us who did not witness the scene, it became something to remember him by. For this, with hindsight, was the moment of apotheosis. They could not know it at the time, but the greatest Aintree career of all was over. As well as winning the race three times, Red Rum had finished second twice; on the eve of his sixth crack at the race, he would be withdrawn lame, whereupon he retired. Meanwhile, his appearance here, on equal terms with his masters, marked his final transformation. However doughty, on the racecourse he had been no more than a horse. Now, as he placidly absorbed the din, he achieved a new guise, as a living legend.
McCain always considered him a remarkably perceptive animal, and his ease among crowds would ensure that Red Rum's second career would prove more profitable than his first. For nearly 18 years he would be in such constant demand for public appearances – opening betting shops or pubs, switching on the Blackpool lights – that he was made into a limited company. On his retirement, his owner turned down an offer of $1m from an entrepreneur with a chain of restaurants in the United States. It was an extraordinary sum for a 13-year-old gelding, but the nonagenarian Noel Le Mare did not need the money, and by this stage felt he was only the nominal owner anyway. Indeed, when the restaurateur, a tiny, polite Japanese-American called Rocky Aoki, arrived at McCain's famous used-car showroom in Southport, a strapping woman emerged from a hostile crowd and took a swing at him with her handbag, exclaiming: "Remember Pearl Harbor!"
And of course the whole point of Red Rum's arrival in the ballroom was that he had restored a sense of place as well as pride in the National – an institution that until that point had been in dire straits – because it was only just up the road from Aintree that his fairy tale unfolded, in a rudimentary cobbled stable behind a motor showroom, and over the endless Southport sand itself, where McCain would gallop his horses.
For the rest of the nation, Red Rum's third National had been celebrated through a broader prism. Reprised many times, Sir Peter O'Sullevan's commentary has become one of the most familiar in broadcasting history. "He's coming up to the line to win it like a fresh horse, in great style," he marvelled. "It's hats off and a tremendous reception – you've never heard one like it at Liverpool."
But the familiar way he fulfilled his destiny should not distort how remote it seemed at the time. True, Red Rum arrived very much as the public favourite, but there was a distinct lack of glamour to the whole event. Ladbrokes, the bookmakers, had signed a management contract in an attempt to salvage the then unfashionable race, and their PR man, Mike Dillon, remembers Aintree as "practically derelict", with the kitchens so bad that no hot food could be served on health and safety grounds. "But we were dead lucky with Ginger," Dillon said. "Anything we asked him to do, in the build-up, he was so accommodating. We even had photos taken of Emlyn Hughes sitting on the horse."
The weather had been pretty vile for the start of the meeting, wet and windy, but National day dawned bright and clear, and the ground was perfect. Everything else, however, would be uphill-going: four and a half miles, and 30 colossal fences (yet to undergo the squeamish modifications made in the years since). And the little horse's singular attributes – his sprightly jumping and his mental engagement, so happily tailored to the demands of the race – were again to be crudely stifled by the big weight he was required to carry – the same weight that had enabled Rag Trade to beat him the previous year. It was the fact that he overcame this handicap that made this race one of the most remarkable events in sporting history.
But even a race as long as the National (the longest in the calendar) gains its dimensions and context from the long years invested by all concerned towards a fleeting consummation. That is always the way for racing professionals, from the breeder to the stable groom; but it is especially true in the case of a horse whose racing career spanned a decade, and of a trainer whose own picaresque saga fills one of Turf history's more colourful memoirs.
Looking back on that April day more than 32 years later, it is almost possible to conjure up the successive episodes of the race and see them as symbols for chapters in the story of Red Rum and his connections. It began, for example, as it usually does, as a stampede towards the first of the 30 fences. Might one not see this as an image representing the chaotic whirl of thoroughbred genes, marshalled with varying degrees of luck and judgement by breeders? The mating that produced Red Rum was intended to produce a sprinter. Indeed, his first ever race was over the minimum distance, five furlongs, and the youngster got up to force a dead heat on the line. Yet his destiny was already taking shape, imperceptibly. That debut happened to take place on the old Flat track at Aintree, and among those who witnessed it was McCain himself.
Then, for the next few years, their paths drifted apart, just as the tightly bunched field of the 1977 Grand National rapidly lost its coherence in the headlong charge to the first fence. They have always gone too fast, too soon, jockeys in the National. On this occasion, seven of them were left on the ground after that first obstacle, sitting disconsolately in the spring sunshine as the thunder of hooves faded away. Five had fallen, two others had been brought down.
But that – in both strands of our narrative – was just the beginning of a much longer story.
McCain had an unpromising start. He had first made the acquaintance of horses when sitting alongside his grandfather on a butcher's cart in Southport, and experience gained in local stableyards prompted him to train the odd horse under permit while also working as a taxi driver. He once drove Frank Sinatra around town in search of a hairbrush. "An insignificant little man," McCain recalls. "I always thought Bing Crosby was better." Another client asked to be driven to London with his pet lion.
One of his favourite errands, however, was to take Mr Le Mare home from a dinner dance every Saturday evening. He would often be asked to join the old man for a nightcap, and they would discuss their shared passion for horses. In time, Le Mare began to put one or two horses in training with his cabbie and, despite inauspicious results at first, proved receptive when McCain brought him a catalogue from Doncaster sales. How about this horse here, Red Rum? McCain thought he might just cut the mustard at Liverpool.
By 1977, his judgement had been vindicated to the extent that every once-a-year punter in the land knew the horse. But while their fidelity ensured that Red Rum was sent off at 9-1, the consensus among the experts was that he might now be over the hill. His only win in seven runs that season had come in a three-horse race at Carlisle, and for the fourth year running he had been set top weight in the handicap, 11st 8lb. There were up-and-comingsteeplechasers in opposition, too, such as Andy Pandy, winner of four decent races that winter, while Churchtown Boy was turned out again two days after winning the Topham Trophy over the same fences.
Then there was Davy Lad, winner of the Cheltenham Gold Cup itself. But he was one of four who fell at the third, and another pair of departures at the next meant that 13 of the 42 runners were out of the equation with 26 fences still to jump. When the leader, Sebastian V, was caught out by the steep landing at Becher's Brook, he left a 66-1 shot named Boom Docker in command. What's more, he seemed to be having the time of his life, and he passed the stands an awfully long way clear of the pack. When his nearest pursuer, Sage Merlin, fell at the Chair, Boom Docker embarked on the final lap like the vengeance of Crisp himself, maybe 40 lengths clear.
Ah, Crisp! The horse who had introduced the greatest Aintree horse of all time as nothing but a villain. The horse whose name, to this day, still rebukes the sport for its coarse fixation with first place and reminds us of the bittersweet glory that can be found in failure. Devon Loch made the point more vividly still, when he mysteriously collapsed yards from the winning post. But Crisp, in only just keeping his feet in 1973 – giving 23lbs to this opportunist interloper, Red Rum – had shown that class and courage can sometimes be evinced even more clearly in defeat than in victory.
That had been another unforgettable sporting moment. Just like Boom Docker, Crisp was left a long way clear by a rival's fall at the Chair. Richard Pitman, his jockey, was struck by the eerie silence. Instead of all the usual mayhem, shouting, flying birch, Crisp had only the tinny voice of the course commentary for company. Pitman saw the odd loose horse that had been caught, the odd jockey leaning on the rail. He can still hear the commentator at Becher's second time, telling him that Crisp was 25 lengths clear, that Red Rum was emerging from the pack but with Brian Fletcher hard at work. And Crisp still felt full of running.
Then, after the second last, the plug was suddenly pulled. Crisp was spent. He was grabbing instead of reaching. His ears went floppy. And here, unmistakably, came the sound of hoofbeats. Pitman could hear Red Rum's nostrils flapping. Still 15 lengths clear at the last, Crisp was collared strides from the post. He had raced so generously in front that both horses had shattered the record time, set 39 years previously, by 19 seconds. To every neutral, Red Rum had perpetrated daylight robbery.
By 1977, however, Red Rum had himself acquired something of Crisp's reputation for heart-breaking gallantry: not so much by winning again, in 1974, as in himself being thwarted in his third and fourth attempts, just like Crisp, by an exorbitant concession of weight. By that stage, moreover, it was apparent that no other horse had ever found such peculiar stimulation in the unique demands of Aintree.
Boom Docker, at any rate, was no Crisp. Instead, in refusing abruptly at the 17th, he handed the baton for the 1977 National to Andy Pandy, a far more eligible type for the role. He was trained by Fred Rimell, who had become the only man – at that time – to train four National winners when Rag Trade beat Red Rum the previous year. Andy Pandy was going great guns, gaining ground at every fence. He was a dozen lengths clear approaching Becher's second time.
In the meantime, Tommy Stack had closed Red Rum towards the head of the chasing pack. The horse had immediately retrieved all the old elan, jumping the big fences with a bravura he could no longer be bothered to affect round mundane "park" courses elsewhere. Even so, Stack wondered if he was in front too soon – tempting the horse to indolence – when Andy Pandy fell at Becher's second time round.
Red Rum needed his wits about him to avoid the fallen leader, but he was still just lobbing along. Then, gradually, he began to turn the screw on his pursuers, led by What A Buck. Stack's biggest concern at this stage was the loose horse escorting him into the Canal Turn on the inside. If his riderless companion went straight on, instead of sharp left, Red Rum might be carried right on to the towpath. Luck was with him there, but Stack did not want to endure the same hazard at every fence, and seized his cue to start pushing Red Rum clear.
Turning for home, Red Rum was again joined by loose horses, but by now Stack felt he might be grateful for something to chase. The field was strung out like the retreat from Moscow. Only Churchtown Boy, receiving 22lbs, was creeping free of the dispirited pack. And Martin Blackshaw, his jockey, kept looking over his shoulder, as though the only possible danger might come from behind. Clearly, he reckoned that he might have the leader covered, when the weight told on the long run from the last.
Coming to the second last, Red Rum was only two lengths clear. But Churchtown Boy seemed to sense that he was not jumping a fence, but an abyss. Destiny had already chosen his rival, and Churchtown Boy lost all momentum. He dragged his legs through the fence, and suddenly appeared to be running on fumes. Red Rum, meanwhile, galloped gaily clear – as O'Sullevan said, like a fresh horse. He won by 25 lengths, from just 10 other finishers.
It was a stunning achievement. Over five consecutive years, he had jumped 150 fences in the National without discernibly dislodging a single sprig of spruce. He had faced an aggregate of 180 rivals, only two of whom had ever preceded him to the winning post. In the process, he had renewed the Grand National as an institution of British life. At the time, remember, Aintree was menaced by property developers, and every year it was said that this National could be the last. But a moment like this was not so much precious as priceless.
In the grandstand, McCain had been pretty complacent. He knew that Churchtown Boy's stamina was suspect. Now there was pandemonium all around him. The big man began loping down the stairs, as best he could, with his friend, Brian Aughton, draped round his neck. (At the bottom of the steps, McCain's legs buckled and Aughton was "unseated".)
McCain caught up with Red Rum on his way to the famous old unsaddling enclosure, nowadays desecrated as a champagne bar. Stack had tears in his eyes. Whatever life had or would throw at him – and in 1999 he was nearly killed by a form of meningitis which left him pretty well deaf – he knew he had achieved a worthwhile pinnacle.
Frank Bough asked Stack to express the moment for the BBC viewers. "Anything I say won't do him justice," the Irishman shrugged. "I'm just glad to have been part of him." McCain was straight to the point. "Never in doubt, the way I saw it," he grinned.
McCain is an outspoken man, with a heedless relish for being misunderstood. (There was irony in the fact that the 1977 race was also the first to feature a woman rider, Charlotte Brew, who skipped over Becher's twice before falling four from home. McCain's views on such matters are indicated by such statements as: "There are women I respect. I can't think of any, apart from the Queen, but there must be.") But the chances are that Red Rum flourished only because his own singular gifts dovetailed freakishly with those of his oddball trainer. They stumbled into a unique, capricious harmony.
McCain is certain that the horse could never have achieved as much elsewhere. In his boyhood, he had seen how the old horses pulling shrimpers' carts in the bay renewed their crippled limbs in the salt water. "In a normal, run-of-the-mill training centre, Red Rum would never have lasted," he said. "I needed him, but he needed Ginger McCain, and he needed Southport."
And that is why the Bold Hotel was teeming that night. The party broke up after 3am, and McCain walked home alone along Lord Street, lost in thought. In his autobiography, he remembered: "I passed a milkman or two, and they offered a word or two of congratulations, but otherwise I walked only with my memories for company. It was a beautiful end to an unforgettable day."
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