McCain junior is chip off the National block

Ballabriggs romps home on day when family comes first
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The Independent Online

If your name is on the Grand National trophy, it's on it. If it happens to be McCain, that statement is becoming increasingly superfluous; seven years after Ginger saddled a winner of the great Aintree race for the fourth time, his son, Donald, took the knack to the next generation as Ballabriggs saw off all comers to take the £535,135 prize.

But for the gallant gelding's rider Jason Maguire, winning for the first time, the sentiment was as appropriate. In 2007 he turned down the chance of riding the winner Silver Birch to stay loyal to the McCain candidate Idle Talk, owned by the stable's long-time patron Trevor Hemmings. In the same green-yellow and white colours, his loyalty was rewarded yesterday.

The 14-1 shot Ballabriggs took over as the field came past the stands after a circuit and blazed the trail from there as the 27 still standing headed out for the final lap. For the last half-mile he was harried and tested by four others, any of whom would have provided the requisite fairytale.

But his reserves of stamina, endurance and bravery were enough to answer all Maguire's calls and he prevailed by two and a quarter lengths, all out. Second spot went to the amateur rider Sam Waley-Cohen, hero of the Gold Cup, who gave Oscar Time a peach of a ride in the colours of his father Robert. They were followed in, 12 lengths adrift, by last year's winner Don't Push It, justifying Tony McCoy's decision to pick him ahead of the other four JP McManus colourbearers.

State Of Play, running for the first time since his third last year, came in fourth, followed by Niche Market and the 15-2 favourite The Midnight Club.

This race is the sport's ultimate test of endurance and yesterday's 164th edition, run on a particularly warm day, was particularly so. The sight of exhausted, staggering horses – including the winner – being swiftly dismounted after the finishing line was not particularly edifying. Happily, all recovered after being doused with cold water, but uniquely Maguire entered the winner's circle on foot. His mount was taken straight back to the stables, as was Don't Push It, leaving Oscar Time the only equine hero for the sunbaked crowd to acclaim.

"I was concerned for the horse when we pulled up," said Maguire, whose efforts with his whip to keep his mount going earnt him a five-day ban."It was very hot out there and he was tired, and I felt him wobble. He is a horse who does not save anything for himself, he gives it the lot.

"My biggest problem out there was to get him to relax. I didn't really want to lose my position – I was told to be in the first 10 or so – so we probably did too much early on, he was half running away with me for the first mile. He was attacking every fence, but every time he jumped he was just doing enough in the air and no more, which helped him see out the trip. Even two out I was having to hang on to him. But once he came off the bridle after that he really dug deep and I felt he was always going to hang on. I can't tell you how it feels right now, it will probably only sink in tomorrow."

Ballabriggs, a 10-year-old by top jump sire Presenting, has been groomed for stardom in marathon contests – and one marathon contest in particular – throughout his career. Hemmings is another with the National in his blood, since the days when his business mentor Fred Pontin won with Specify in 1971. Yesterday's was his second victory, after Hedgehunter in 2005.

And if any outfit knows what qualities are needed for this unique challenge, it is the team at Bankhouse Stables in Cheshire. On this occasion, Ginger was happy to leave the talking to the man with the licence. "You only have to have looked at this one to know he'd be a quality staying chaser," said McCain Jnr, "and a good horse like him is always easy to train. He is actually a joy to deal with, he's one of the nicest horses we've ever had anything to do with, a genuine gentleman of a horse.

"We owed Jason one, didn't we? We always felt this horse was the right type for this race and his preparation could not have gone more smoothly. I'm so lucky to have been involved with the Grand National all my life and I guess this thing about Aintree is all about us coming from the north-west. The sport gets a bit Cheltenham-obsessed, but you've only got to come here this week to realise what this place is all about."

Hemmings concurs. "From the last fence, everyone was telling me I was going to win it, but I had to turn away, I just couldn't look. Footballers dream of scoring a goal at Wembley and cricketers about hitting a boundary at Lord's but this race is the ultimate in horseracing. I was stunned the last time – nobody is entitled to that trophy – and although I was slightly more with it today, I still felt it wasn't really happening."

Those in the frame felt the thrill, too, particularly Waley-Cohen, so close to becoming the first of the unpaid ranks to win a Gold Cup and a National in the same season. "He did everything I asked of him," he said of Oscar Time. "This course is so special and if a horse takes to it he gives you the best 10 minutes of your life and also the shortest 10 minutes."

Keeping it in the family is something of a tradition here – three years ago David Pipe followed in his father Martin's example as a winning trainer – but for the McCains, with the legend that is Red Rum, with Amberleigh House and now Ballabriggs, it seems almost a birthright.

Keep it in the family

Ginger McCain's National record as trainer:

1973 Red Rum (1st)

1974 Red Rum (1st)

1975 Red Rum (2nd)

1976 Red Rum (2nd)

1977 Red Rum (1st)

2001 Amberleigh House (fell)

2003 Amberleigh House (3rd)

2004 Amberleigh House (1st)

2005 Amberleigh House (10th)

(in Ginger McCain's last National, in 2006, he ran Inca Trail (who finished 8th), Ebony Light (fell) and Amberleigh House (pulled up)

Donald McCain's National record as trainer:

2007 Idle Talk (unseated rider at 19th)

2008 Cloudy Lane (6th), Idle Talk (14th)

2009 Idle Talk (12th), Cloudy Lane (unseated rider at 15th)

2010 Cloudy Lane (8th)

2011 Ballabriggs (1st)

Chris Forwood

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