It was Red Rum's greatest skill that he reserved his best for the race that the British public reserve as their favourite. A record of three victories, as well as two seconds, in the Grand National, delivered him a place in the common lexicon.
As a young horse Red Rum was united with one of the few personalities who could match him, Lester Piggott. "I'm very sorry to hear of his death," the recently retired jockey said. "He was a racing institution and stayed in our yard on more than one occasion when he was down to open betting shops in the area. It's a very, very sad loss."
Red Rum it was who showed that retired racehorses did not have to shiver their lives away in the corner of a field. His exploits on the racecourse earned him almost pounds 115,000 in first-place prize money, but he is generally thought to have added a zero to that figure with his public appearances.
Yet Red Rum should not really have jumped a fence at all. He was bred at the Rossenara Stud in Co Kilkenny to be a Flat horse as he was by the sprinter Quorum (stallion fee pounds 198) out of a mare called Mared, who cost 240 guineas at the sales. England had yet to win the World Cup. Red Rum himself was, as a yearling, sent to Goffs Sales in Ireland, where he slipped to the ground. Few people were ever to see the horse fall again.
The gelding's early career on the Flat and then over jumps was characterised more by the quantity than quality of his performances. The defining moment of his life came when he was sent to the August Doncaster Sales of 1972 and was purchased for 6,000 guineas by Donald "Ginger" McCain. The trainer bought the horse for an old owner, Noel Le Mare, a Lancashire construction engineer whose boyhood ambitions were to become a millionaire, marry a beautiful woman and win the Grand National. By the time Red Rum came into his keeping, when he was 84, he was happy he had achieved the first two objectives.
The charm of McCain's yard was that it was located behind a car showroom in Southport. More pertinently for the horse, it placed him close to the sea. From a relatively early age, Red Rum had suffered from pedalostitis, a form of arthritis of the foot which usually means the guillotine for a racehorse's career. Special shoeing and drugs alleviated the problem, but it was generally recognised that it was cured by the gelding's regular walks in the up-to-then unheralded spa waters of the Irish Sea.
The following spring Red Rum went to Aintree for the first time as one of the most improved horses in training. Oddly, considering the adulation that was to follow, he was something of an anti-hero that day as he swept past the bold, front-running but exhausted Crisp just yards from the line in a course record time.
In 1974 Red Rum was topweight and the third favourite and won again before going on to success in the Scottish National at Ayr. For the next two years he was second, behind L'Escargot and Rag Trade, but in 1977 he was back for a fifth attempt. He won by 25 lengths and then went to celebrate with some of his supporters. "The horse was invited into a hotel in Southport," Tommy Stack, who had taken over the ride from Brian Fletcher, remembered yesterday. "He proceeded to walk up the steps and into the lobby for a drink."
That was to be Red Rum's last victory, however. The following season, as a 13-year-old, he was made hot favourite for the National but injured a heel eight days before the race. He never ran again. In all he competed 100 times over jumps, winning 24 of his starts.
The public were still able to see much of the horse at his many engagements, though, and he was routinely at the head of the Grand National parade. He missed that appointment this year, but he did make one final appearance at Aintree on 3 May, the actual date of his 30th birthday.
Red Rum was moved from the Southport base of glory to new premises at Cholmondeley, in Cheshire, five years ago and when staff arrived at his box yesterday morning they knew there would be no more parades, no more daybreaks for the old horse. He was found to be in a distressed state and the decision to have him humanely destroyed was quickly taken.
"It wasn't just his five Grand Nationals, but it was the Scottish National and he was a short-head second in the Hennessy," McCain said yesterday. "He was a tremendous old competitor, but much more than that he switched on Blackpool lights and was Chieftain of Honour at the Highland Games. He was a very remarkable horse, a seriously magical horse."
Five years that shook the racing world
1973 Grand National
1 RED RUM 9-1 jt-fav
2 Crisp 9-1 jt-fav
3 L'Escargot 11-1
4 Spanish Steps 16-1
1 RED RUM 11-1
2 L'Escargot 17-2
3 Charles Dickens 50-1
4 Spanish Steps 15-1
1 L'ESCARGOT 13-2
2 Red Rum 7-2 fav
3 Spanish Steps 20-1
4 Money Market 14-1
1 RAG TRADE 14-1
2 Red Rum 10-1
3 Eyecatcher 28-1
4 Barona 7-1 fav
1 RED RUM 9-1
2 Churchtown Boy 20-1
3 Eyecatcher 18-1
4 The Pilgarlic 40-1