The old gentleman is 91. He sits close to the big coal fire, his shirt brilliant white, his smoking jacket a rich plum velvet. The heavy curtains are closed against the thin Lancashire sun and his eyes are alight with pleasure. "Hey, watch him now," he says, looking round to make sure everybody is paying attention. "Here's my old hoss now!"
The videotape he is running for his guests is almost five years old. It shows the Grand National Steeplechase at Aintree, Liverpool, England, March 31, 1973, the 135th running of the most grueling test of a jumping horse in the world: 4 miles and 856 yards over 30 fences that include The Chair, a 6-foot open ditch with a 5'2" fence following it, Becher's Brook, with the treacherous water beyond the jump, as well as the gut-wrenching Canal Turn where the jockeys must change direction as they hit the turf. As a rough statistic, for every horse that has finished the course over the years, two have fallen.
Almost two-thirds of the way into this 1973 film, though, there seems to be little drama left in the race. A huge dark brown Australian 'chaser called Crisp is almost alone on the screen as the 19th jump comes up. "I can't remember a horse so far ahead in the National at this stage," the commentator yells. The old man in the fireside chair hugs his knees impatiently. "You wait, son, you wait," he murmurs to the TV man.
Now coming into the picture but barely in contention, it seems, is a bay horse that looks pony-sized compared to Crisp. At the Canal Turn, six jumps from home, he is fully 20 lengths behind the leader. With three jumps left he has closed somewhat. At the last jump, with only 250 yards of the home stretch to race, there is still a 15-length gap. "Watch now!" the old man commands his guests. "Watch the legs on that big hoss!"
They seem to splay, rubberize, the jockey desperately trying to hold the big horse on line. And 40 yards from home the little bay catches him.
"That's my hoss, that is!" the old man tells us triumphantly. "That's Red Rum!" When the tape was made there were no pubs in England called the Red Rum or hotels where you could drink at Rummie's Bar. There are at least three of the former now and one of the latter. There was no sign of a Dutch production unit arriving to make a film called Cred Crum. Neither was there the need to hire secretarial help for Red Rum's fan mail, nor a rose named after him. There were no Red Rum key rings, buttons, T shirts, birthday and Christmas cards. Nor was there the opportunity to subscribe toward a life-sized statue of the horse. All these things have come to pass. In the last five years Red Rum has become the object of the kind of adulation that in England is usually reserved for a very few soccer players. The fervor of the sentimental cult Red Rum has engendered will reach a peak on the eve of the 1978 National, which the old hero, now 13 years old, will be contesting on April 1, for the sixth time, as—almost unbelievably—a 7-to-1 favorite.
In 1973, however, Red Rum's win was hardly the most popular in the history of the race. Public feeling, and a lot of the public's money, had been with Crisp, carrying 168 pounds to Red Rum's 145, and with Richard Pitman, Crisp's well-liked jockey. And even though Red Rum had set a track record of 9:01.9, the acclaim was no more than tepid. At the time, however, the English were not aware that a fairy tale with three Cinderellas was unfolding.
The first Cinderella was the old gentleman with the videotape, Noel Le Mare, the owner of Red Rum, though for him the fairy godmother waved her wand a considerable time ago. Now, in his big house at Birkdale, 18 miles from Liverpool, where the British Open is sometimes held, the silver gleams and the carpets glow richly. His parents were penniless missionaries in India who came home to England without even the $100 their son needed to become an apprentice engineer. So at 14 years of age he shipped aboard a trawler. Somehow he taught himself engineering, though he was a merchant seaman until after World War I, when he borrowed $400 for a quarter share in a horse-and-cart construction company. This eventually became Norwest Construction, which was worth $10 million when Le Mare sold out and retired. He was into his 60s before he owned a racehorse.
"Alex Kirkpatrick trained that one for me," he says. "Old Alex. He's with the Lord now...."
The company looks suitably solemn. He gazes about quizzically. "And that means," he adds, "that he's getting a bloody good lunch right now." He turns to the videotape machine again.
Now it is Aintree 1974, with Red Rum looking like an easy winner, well clear of the American-owned L'Escargot. Then L'Escargot challenges. But unlike Crisp the year before, Red Rum does not give in. He shakes clear, sprints home and wins by seven lengths, the first horse to win the Grand National twice since Reynoldstown did it in 1935 and 1936. "You must have felt so excited," somebody says lamely. A quite unsuitable Groucho Marx leer crosses Le Mare's sharp features. He holds out his sherry glass for a refill and lights another cigarette. "I only get excited when I'm near a girl," he says.
The Red Rum hysteria really began after the second win, but Le Mare has more videotapes for his guests. Aintree 1975: Red Rum, conceding 11 pounds to L'Escargot, finishes second to Raymond Guest's horse. Aintree 1976: again second, carrying 12 pounds more than the winner, Rag Trade. And finally last year's race, run to a continuous wild roar, to a deafening chant of "Red Rum! Red Rum!" with the tears streaming down the cheeks of hardened bookies as the old horse, fighting off a ruck of challengers up to the third fence from home, comes in clear by 25 lengths.
Three wins, two seconds—incomparably the finest Grand National record ever achieved. And now, this spring on the eve of his sixth attempt, should you wish to make a pilgrimage to meet the old hero, you first have to locate McCain's Car Sales on a drab Birkdale street. You'll find it just above the railway crossing, opposite Shing Kee's Chinese Fish and Chip shop. Ask for Ginger McCain, who is Cinderella No. 2.
If the first element in the fairy tale was Noel Le Mare's rise from trawler deckie to millionaire, the second was his fondness, in his retirement, for heading to nearby Southport of a Saturday night for a few cozy gin and tonics at the Prince of Wales Hotel. Where, as he will handsomely tell you himself, it often seemed sensible to call for a cab for the homeward journey.
Most nights the cabbie was a tall, redheaded man in his 40s called Donald, or, more commonly, Ginger, McCain, who also could be described, not too unkindly, as an unsuccessful trainer of horses. It had taken him 13 years, training his own horses, to achieve his first win, 17 years to get his first paying client. He had a small used-car business and he ran a cab. The profits from both were badly eroded by his desperate infatuation with racehorses. Not with gambling but with the passionate desire to own and train winners. Buying at the cheapest end of the market, he normally acquired four-legged disasters. And when, one night on the road home from the Prince of Wales, he talked Le Mare into buying yet another couple of cheapies for him to train, it looked as if he had blown his best chance ever. They had the resounding names of Cambuslang and Bardolino. Cambuslang turned out to have a bad heart. Bardolino had to be put down. It seemed as if the Le Mare-McCain relationship would henceforth be limited to the drive between the Prince of Wales and Birkdale, especially since, during his first three years as a public trainer, McCain had just three winners.
But, somewhat amazingly, Ginger was given a second chance. Old Le Mare had always wanted a National winner. ("After that the Lord can take me," he had somewhat incautiously announced to the press after an early failure.) And in 1971 he commissioned McCain to buy him a horse called Glenkiln, which qualified for the '72 National. Glenkiln performed respectably in some early-season races, and three weeks before the big one, Le Mare called his bookie to put on an $800 bet. Sorry, said the bookie, but Glenkiln is not running in the National.
Ginger had blown it again. Thinking he was filling out a form declaring his intention to run the horse, he had actually withdrawn it. But this, of course, is a fairy tale. Moreover, nobody rises from deckhand to millionaire without acquiring some stoic philosophy. Not only did Le Mare forgive the appalling blunder, the following fall he allowed McCain to go into the market for him again. Ginger went to the Doncaster sales and spent $12,000 on a bay gelding called Red Rum. At the time he was not aware that Red Rum had been receiving treatment for a form of equine arthritis that is almost always the end of the line for a racehorse. Cinderella No. 3 was about to join the ranks.
If Red Rum had been human, social workers would be lined up to testify that he never had a chance. His dam, Mared, was seriously regarded as mad in the Irish stud farm in County Kilkenny, where Red Rum was bred. As a colt at the sales, Red Rum injured himself in his box, limped in the ring and was knocked down for $800. Thereafter he was worked hard, never to great effect. At one stage, in 1967, he was ridden by seven different jockeys in eight races. Altogether, he was worked on by five different trainers. In 1969 and '70, with a persistent cough, he went 14 races without a win. The following season he showed better form, winning three minor jump races. But on New Year's Day 1972 he was limping badly after a three-mile race in Yorkshire, his fourth race in a month. "Chronic pedalosteitis," said the vet. He also declared that the horse must have been in great pain each time his off-forehoof landed on the turf after a jump.
Treatment followed. Deep-heat therapy, gentle exercise. Two months later the stable had Red Rum racing again. He was in a collision with another horse, but raced five more times before the summer and was beaten each time, particularly badly beaten in the last. Red Rum was now seven years old. His owner decided to sell. Enter Ginger with his $12,000.
The day after McCain brought Red Rum home, he took him out, weaving through the used cars, over the railway crossings, through the Birkdale traffic and onto the beach. "Well, you use what you've got," Ginger says now, comfortable in the knowledge that the plan worked. Ginger had neither rolling grassland nor any normal practice track. What he had was Southport Beach, really the northern shore of the Mersey Estuary where the shallow tide creeps in at almost a walking pace over miles of sand. That summer morning he sent Red Rum off on a trot, and, to his horror, immediately discerned a noticeable limp. The luck of Ginger McCain, it seemed, had struck again. But though no one noticed at the time, the fairy godmother was picking up the old wand for a last swing. Red Rum's stable lad trotted him into the sea. When the bay horse came out of the water, he no longer limped.
That meant little at the time. The cooling property of the sea might have eased the pain temporarily. But the truth is that Red Rum never limped again after that morning wade in the tide, except at odd times for minor, obvious causes. And the salt water seemed to make Red Rum a different horse. In his first season with Ginger, culminating in the National win of 1973, out of nine races he won six and placed in the other three.
Now, on the eve of the '78 National, the saltwater and beach regimen continues. First, McCain harrows the sand to make the going softer and to get rid of any beer cans and bottles that have drifted in from Liverpool with the tide. On a gray spring morning, the sand stretching to a horizon so misty that it merges with the sky, the old horse is to be seen stepping daintily through the tide, snorting and loving it. "They say that sand shortens a horse's stride, that it is too firm, that kind of stuff," says Ginger. "I used to be criticized a lot. But other trainers are coming down to use it now."
Ginger has been criticized on other counts. A large section of a sentimental public feels that Red Rum should have gone into happy retirement after his '77 win. (It is fair to say that the same cry went up in 1976. And in 1975.) Hard-nosed racing men, perhaps justifiably, say that the horse is now kept and trained for just one race a year—the National—and they are borne out by the absurd way that the odds vary on the horse. Although Red Rum is the current National favorite at 7 to 1, he started a minor jump race a month ago at 25 to 1 and justified those odds by finishing last. "Training on the racecourse," is what some call it scathingly. Five starts this season (the English jump season runs from fall to spring), no wins. In 1976-77 he won a minor race early in the season, then ran six times without a win before his third Aintree victory.
McCain concedes, "Yes, he is now a specialist, a National horse. He's old, he needs a lot of distance. He can't concede 15 or 20 pounds to young 'chasers over short distances and small fences. We call these tracks where he gets beaten 'park' courses. He needs the 4½ miles of Liverpool, because even though as he has aged his speed has deteriorated, he has become the complete stayer. I'd like five miles, not 4½ Weight will bring donkeys and Derby winners together, and on these little park courses he's been handicapped right up to his Grand National form."
The workout this particular morning is short, and in McCain's kitchen, overlooking his stable yard, the fan mail is waiting. A lady in Singapore includes a plastic envelope for a hair from Red Rum's tail. A 13-year-old girl writes passionately, "Win for the fourth time. I'll die if you don't." There is an appreciative note from a Mr. Tiger Bennett of White Hill, Md. And a poem which ends, "Though carrying top weight/He's left them on the straight/In the roughest, toughest race of them all!"
"We'll do what we've always done on National day." Ginger says. "Final gallop on the beach Friday morning, evening stables, then my job's done. We'll have a bit of a party Friday night. Saturday morning everybody is tense. About 11 o'clock we'll pile in the car and call in on old Stan Wareing on the way—we've done that for the past five years—and we'll have a few bottles of champagne, get a bit lit up because by then we'll be feeling a little hollow in the stomach, a bit sick. And after the race, win or lose we'll have the booze, as they say."
On April 1 Tommy Stack from County Kerry, who won on him last year, will be riding Red Rum, and he will not even have the National jockey's customary "Liverpool Cocktail" of orange juice, champagne and glucose, because Tommy is a teetotaler and because he has only just recovered from a smashed pelvis sustained last September at Hexham Racecourse that had him in traction for 74 days.
"Bloody Kamikaze pilots, these Liverpool jockeys," McCain says, "About 40 go in and eight come back. But Tommy will be riding the greatest old Liverpool horse ever. He's a bright old bugger. He knows the fences.
"He's the one that they all have to beat, 13 years old or not. And if he comes home in the first five or six, then that will be super—comes home safe and sound, not all knocked about. But I think you'd have to shoot him to keep him out of the first bunch.
"And you know, those horses, when they are coming down that far side, they get to Becher's Brook, there's still more than a mile to go. That's when it will start to hurt them. And that's when he'll have his old head down, battling on in his old way. If he isn't unlucky, if he isn't knocked over or brought down. But he makes his own luck, this Old Red."
In spite of the odds that make him the favorite, a fourth win is asking an enormous amount of the old hero. Should he win, there will be a champagne famine in England on April 2. And an old gentleman in Birkdale will add another treasured videotape to his collection.