The horse who could win by a landslide

Red Rum was much more than a thoroughbred - he was a great public figure, says Alastair Down
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The Independent Online
Alec Douglas-Home and Red Rum died eight days apart. One was prime minister but never ran in the Grand National, the other won the National three times and would almost certainly have been elected had he stood for the premiership.

What is certain is that Red Rum was backed by more people in his five faultless forays round those fearsome fences than was Sir Alec in the 1964 general election. But then the British, who love a punt, have always been more exercised by the inequality of horses than the equality of man.

This was reflected in Thursday's newspaper front pages which devoted reams of space to Red Rum's demise. One would be tempted to say that the breadth, depth and acreage of space was of the sort usually reserved for great public figures, but the truth is that Red Rum - a horse aged 30 - commanded vastly greater coverage than did Lord Home the week before.

And why not? The Grand National takes nine minutes to run, and his three wins and two seconds meant that Red Rum had spent more than 45 minutes galloping through the front rooms of most of the nation's households. Like it or despise it, the race is a national institution and the horse's unique achievements in it wove Red Rum into the warp and weft of the nation's sporting consciousness.

And, of course, this is a nation that often suspends its notions of the sensible where animals are concerned: a country in which the privileged classes pack their children off to boarding school soon after they've reached a reliable level of continence, while letting their dogs stay at home and sleep on their beds.

Perhaps the most surprising thing was that Red Rum never figured in the New Year Honours List. He could have had an honorary knighthood, like Bob Geldof, though it is probably fair to say that public recognition of horses by the state has never recovered the lustre it lost a few years back when Caligula made his horse Consul.

But what made Red Rum so special, so famous? After all he was just a horse - four legs, teeth and the customary functions that are good for the roses. The answer is that Red Rum was seen for what he was - himself.

Most horses with a place in history owe their eminence to a human connection. Where would Black Bess be without Dick Turpin? Or Bucephalus without his regular jockey Alexander The Great? And think of poor old Copenhagen, hanging around all day waiting for Napoleon to get back on, just because the Emperor kept trying to go round corners with one hand still tucked inside his jacket.

The glory all those equines enjoyed was reflected glory because of the close connection they had with humans - although history is reticent as to the identity of those animals linked with Catherine the Great, who is said to have taken the notion of "the love of horses" rather more literally than is recommended by the Pony Club.

But Red Rum is rightly seen as having done it all himself, the allure of his rise from obscurity to genuine greatness much enriched by the everyday nature of his surroundings - he was stabled behind a second-hand car showroom and trained on a beach. As the Sporting Life editorialised about him this week, with only a touch of hyperbole: "He was the people's horse, as ordinary as a cup of tea yet as rare as Halley's Comet."

We shouldn't worry that Sir Alec Douglas-Home was upstaged by a horse. We have had loads of prime ministers, but only one Red Rum.

The writer is associate editor at the 'Sporting Life'