As the 40th anniversary of Red Rum’s first Grand National victory approaches, Chris Wright looks back on the Aintree hero in the first of a Liverpool ECHO three-part series
WHO’S the greatest? It’s a sporting question posed with regularity in pubs, clubs and homes across Merseyside and beyond.
Whatever the sport, team or individual, fans will debate the merits of heroes past and present.
Pele or Maradona or Messi? Borg or Federer? Nicklaus or Woods? Marciano or Ali? Dalglish or Gerrard? Dean or Ball? Bunny Bell or Aldridge? The list is endless.
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In racing it’s Golden Miller or Arkle? Brigadier Gerard or Frankel? Nijinsky or Sea The Stars? Desert Orchid or Kauto Star?
But when it comes to the Grand National, there is really no debate.
Ginger McCain’s hugely popular steeplechaser Red Rum stands head and shoulders over the field as the greatest National hero of them all.
With the 40th anniversary of the first of Red Rum’s historic three victories in the world’s greatest steeplechase on Easter Sunday, his legacy and enduring appeal is as strong as ever.
He may not have had the speed and overall ability of other jump racing greats such as Arkle or Desert Orchid. Or been as regally-bred and classy as Flat stars Nijinsky or Frankel, but there really was only one Red Rum.
He was a one-off, a breed apart and it is highly unlikely there will be another like him.
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His Aintree legend began 40 years ago with one of the most iconic moments in sporting history. Having been behind by up to 30 lengths from the front-running, bold-jumping Australian chaser Crisp for so much of the 4m4f of the Aintree marathon, Red Rum got up in the shadow of the winning post to start his Grand National journey.
He came from behind to grab glory. But his own trip to the top is one from humble beginnings and triumph over adversity.
Born at 6pm on May 3 1965 at the Rossenarra Stud in County Kilkenny in Ireland, his pedigree was more about speed than stamina. Any ideas he would be anything more than a moderate Flat performer would have appeared fanciful.
His sire, Quorum, had been a decent horse and won six races as well as finishing second in the 2,000 Guineas. But his mare Mared had been quirky and troublesome on the track. It was hardly a union of racing’s royalty. But their colt was to rise to the top from humble beginnings.
As well as providing the DNA of a supreme National horse, they also combined for the most memorable moniker in British racing history.
Breeder Martyn McEnery used the last three letters of sire and dam’s name to make up Red Rum.
On April 7, 23 months after his birth, Red Rum made his debut – fittingly at Aintree – in a five-furlong selling plate. He managed to dead-heat for first under Paul Cook with a horse called Curlicue – and so a love affair with Aintree was born.
He won two more races on the Flat and was second on his second trip to Aintree, ridden by Lester Piggott, in 1968. It was his final race on the Flat before embarking on a jumps career beginning with another second-placed finish at Cheltenham in September 1968.
Red Rum was a busy horse over the next four years and won three times over hurdles and four chases. But he had developed pedal osteitis – a debilitating bone disease in the feet that sent most racehorses into early retirement. He was put up for sale by his second owner Lurline Brotherton, whose Freebooter had won the 1950 National.
Things, though, were about to change in the summer of 1972 with the perfect union of the right trainer and the right horse.
Noel Le Mare, the millionaire owner of civil engineering firm Norwest, was ferried to his Saturday night dinners in Southport by local taxi driver, car salesman and licensed trainer Donald ‘Ginger’ McCain.
One of Le Mare’s lifelong ambitions had been to win the Grand National. He was well into his 80s and McCain was charged with helping achieve his dream. After no luck with their initial ventures, McCain bought Red Rum for Le Mare for 6,000 guineas at Doncaster Sales in August 1972.
McCain had no gallops and used to work his horses on the sands at Ainsdale. He believed in the healing powers of the salty water of the sea. And this unconventional method helped Red Rum recover from his problems and he won all five of his first starts under McCain’s stewardship.
He was then second in the Cumberland Grand National at Carlisle, third in the National Trial and fourth in the Greenall Whitley Chase – both at Haydock Park.
McCain had primed the then eight-year-old perfectly for his National date.
When the tapes went up at 3.18pm on March 31 1973, Red Rum was carrying not only Brian Fletcher, but much of the support of the people of Merseyside as well as much of the rest of the country.
Having been a 25-1 chance ante-post, he was eventually backed down to 9-1 joint favourite alongside Fred Winter’s Crisp – a classy performer – under Richard Pitman. Crisp and Grey Sombrero were out in front with the former jumping superbly. He stretched his lead from fence to fence.
Fletcher had Red Rum stalking at a distance, but he seemed too far behind. Coming to the last Crisp’s lead over his challenger was 15 lengths. But Red Rum kept on gaining and as Crisp grew weary from his exertions he timed his run to glory to perfection.
It was a stunning victory and there was plenty of sympathy for the gallant Crisp, who was beaten by a horse carrying 23lbs less. But there was only one winner, with Red Rum smashing the course record, coming home in nine minutes 1.9 seconds. Only Mr Frisk in 1990 has run it faster since.
After the race McCain said: “Frankly, I didn’t think mine had much chance of catching Crisp, but I knew if he was going to stop, mine is tremendously tough and game and, given just a chance would battle it out. And that’s just what he did.
“It was always my ambition to train a horse good enough to enter the National – never mind win. I’m over the moon. I still can’t believe we’ve won it.”
But belief in his ability over the fearsome Aintree obstacles is what Red Rum imbued to all around him.
In all his five National runs he barely made a semblance of a mistake, jumping every fence with style and steely determination.
His owner, the then 86-year-old Le Mare, had completed his lifetime’s ambition thanks to Red Rum.
He said: “I’ve had three ambitions in life. To marry a beautiful woman, to be a millionaire and win the National. Now my life’s complete.”
But neither Red Rum nor McCain were done with Aintree. Their National story was only just beginning.