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Head stable lad Barry Ellison rides Champion Thoroughbred steeplechaser racehorse ‘Red Rum’, 1975. (Photo by Tony Evans/Getty Images)
The horse who became an unlikely hero

The horse who became an unlikely hero

Head stable lad Barry Ellison rides Champion Thoroughbred steeplechaser racehorse ‘Red Rum’, 1975. (Photo by Tony Evans/Getty Images)

Lydia Hislop tells the story of Red Rum – the horse who conquered Aintree at its most dangerous

Turning for home with two fences to jump in the Grand National, the giant Crisp was still 15 lengths clear of the field. Millions of television viewers and the thousands who had lined Aintree racecourse in Liverpool, enjoying a rail-side view that would not be permitted nowadays, were willing the Australian-bred horse to victory. They had taken every stride and soared over every fence with him, his round of jumping never yet matched in the race’s long history. 

On this day in March 1973, Aintree needed such a hero. Property developers were circling the world-famous venue and the public seemed to be losing interest in the unique steeplechase, first run fewer than two years into Queen Victoria’s reign.

But Crisp was visibly tiring as he neared the end of the exacting four-and-a-half-mile course and a sole pursuer, carrying 23lb less weight, was pounding ever closer. Crisp tottered the 474 yards from the final fence to the finish jelly-legged, and just two strides from the line was overtaken.

“The most pitiful scene ever enacted on that punishing run-in brought the 1973 National to its awful yet glorious end, as Crisp bravely staggered towards the victory he had truly earned but was not to gain,” wrote racing historian Reg Green.

But Aintree had its hero and his name was not Crisp. It was the horse who would become synonymous with Liverpool’s great sporting event, who rescued Aintree racecourse – not to mention more than 130 years of tradition – from the bulldozers, who would become more famous than any other, who had pipped Crisp at the post. And his renown would become such that when he died many years later, he was mourned far beyond the racing world. 

This is the story of Red Rum.

He wasn’t intended for greatness. Born at Rossenarra Stud in Kells, County Kilkenny, in the south of Ireland, he was not bred to be a celebrated marathon chaser but an inconsequential, perhaps deranged, sprinter. His mum, a mare called Mared, spent her life in a frenzy. Her owner, Red Rum’s breeder Martyn McEnery, recalled that whenever she raced her coat would turn from a rich bay colour to “black with sweat and white with froth everywhere”. She consented to win once before McEnery opted to breed from her.

In the spring of 1964, McEnery sent Mared to mate with a stallion called Quorum, owned by a family friend. Bred to be fast, Quorum had performed with some distinction at distances up to one mile. He stood at Balreask Stud, near Dublin airport, and his services, plus the mare’s board for a fortnight, cost McEnery £251.12s. At 6pm on 3 May 1965, after Mared had been “all smoke and steam” during the birth, a bay colt was foaled.

His public life started inauspiciously when, as a yearling, he walked stiffly around the sales ring and McEnery reluctantly let him go for 400 guineas (£420) – half his reserve price. He joined the Leicestershire stable of jump jockey turned trainer Tim Molony, who’d been asked to buy an inexpensive horse to land a gamble at Liverpool the following March. Molony’s client was Maurice Kingsley, who named his purchase on sight: “Ma-Red. Quo-Rum. So, it must be Red Rum.”

At his new home, Red Rum ate a lot, behaved boisterously and developed a sense of righteous indignation about road traffic – three traits that would never leave him. He was not imposing in stature but he had charisma.

In those days, most Grand National winners spent at least the first four years of life munching grass in a field, strangers to a saddle, as befitted the traditional development of a steeplechaser designed to mature late, and to jump and gallop over distances in excess of four miles. They are not normally capable of winning a five-furlong sprint before their second birthday.

Indeed, the money on Red Rum looked lost in his first race, at Aintree’s Grand National meeting in April 1967. He started too slowly, flummoxed by being asked to gallop flat out, but he got the hang of it and, displaying the honest competitiveness that would become his hallmark, finished the race so strongly that he forced a dead-heat – by coincidence with a filly bred alongside him at Rossenarra Stud. He had also embarked on his career at the racecourse where, six years later, he would begin to forge undying fame.

Kingsley’s target race was a “seller”, the lowliest form of racing contest requiring the winner to be offered for sale afterwards. Standing in the crowd that day was a tall ginger-haired man, a taxi driver and used-car dealer from nearby Southport. Donald “Ginger” McCain loved Liverpool. He’d got engaged and married on Grand National day, two years apart, celebrating at the races with his fiancée then wife, Beryl, after each occasion.

As McCain would repeatedly tell Beryl during hard times, he was on the lookout for “one good horse” and liked what he saw in the juvenile Red Rum. Yet from humble stables behind his car showroom at the poorer end of Birkdale, he had only trained third-hand chasers in his spare time. He walked away before the auction began.

It would be more than five years before McCain got close to Red Rum again, by which time the sturdy horse had raced another 58 times, on the flat and over jumps. He had moved to Oxclose, near Ripon, where he passed through the hands of three trainers in quick succession – including Tommy Stack, who would ultimately play a pivotal part in his story.

During this period, Red Rum gained an undeserved reputation for laziness. In fact, he was developing pedal osteitis, an incurable disease in the main bone of his right forefoot that would threaten his career. A belated diagnosis uncovered this equine equivalent of arthritis, complicated by ossification of the cartilage, further arthritic growths and a bone spur. These caused him a great deal of pain, yet in testament to his courage and endurance, Red Rum had still managed to win ten more races. Aged seven in August 1972, he was nonetheless put up for sale again.

Ignorant of Red Rum’s ailment, McCain had noted him running a promising fifth in the 1972 Scottish National and, although it wasn’t mentioned in the Doncaster sales catalogue, he realised the horse was qualified for the 1973 Grand National. He determined to buy him for his ever-optimistic 84-year-old client, Noel Le Mare.

This was an alliance that had begun badly. McCain met the charming millionaire industrialist, who himself started with nothing, via driving him to the Saturday night dinner dance at the elegant Prince of Wales Hotel in Southport. 

At the time, after three seasons with a public licence to train and regularly testing Beryl’s fortitude by buying horses they could not afford, McCain had won just a handful of races. Yet Le Mare shared the struggling trainer’s obsession with Aintree and, after many months of pestering, agreed to take ownership of two horses. Both were disastrous. McCain still taxied Le Mare but believed his chance to do more had passed.

Then one night he persuaded Le Mare to part with 1,000 guineas for Glenkiln, a horse qualified for the 1972 Grand National. Or he was qualified until, unaccustomed to the requisite paperwork, McCain mistakenly withdrew him. Beryl immediately dispatched her mortified husband to Le Mare’s house to confess.

McCain would later concede in his autobiography, My Colourful Life, that his career had been shaped by his wife, who was both exasperated by him and fiercely protective. “I married Beryl, and from then on I was getting kicked and spurred into doing things to progress in business and in life,” he wrote. “The reality is she has been a driving force for good in my life – even if I have never liked being told what’s to be done by ladies in any way, shape or form. Don’t get me started about policewomen.”

Had his trainer not made that error, Le Mare wouldn’t have been in the market for Red Rum. Le Mare felt so sorry for the rueful McCain that he authorised him to bid up to 7,000 guineas.

McCain had never before gone north of Glenkiln’s price tag and yet he feared even this enormous amount would not be enough. Red Rum’s current trainer had set out to retain him and was poised in a bidding duel that had inched up to 5,500 guineas when McCain made his move. He pulled a manoeuvre honed in the second-hand motor trade. Holding up one outspread hand and a thumb, he mouthed the word “six” to the auctioneer. It halted the bidding at a stroke.

So, Red Rum crossed the Pennines to Lancashire and McCain’s modest base. It stood just a short walk through the bustling town to the beach where, beyond the dunes of Royal Birkdale Golf Club, it was his new trainer’s serendipitous habit to exercise his horses on a strip of sand prepared by dragging behind his truck two spiked harrows weighed down by railway sleepers.

There, McCain proudly trotted his expensive acquisition for the first time. The horse was manifestly lame. “Bugger off with him into the tide then!” McCain yelled at Red Rum’s rider, a sick feeling infusing his body for spending Le Mare’s money on a crock. The elderly owner had already grumbled that the horse’s name, spelling m-u-r-d-e-r backwards, was “no good”.

Red Rum, ridden by Brian Fletcher, beats long- time leader Crisp
to win the Grand National for the first time at Aintree on 31 March 1973.
Main picture; Red Rum, with Ginger McCain’s head stable lad Billy Ellison in the saddle, in training in 1975

Yet it was Red Rum’s good fortune to join the only trainer in England who exercised his horses on a beach. The horse loved the sea and would later regularly breast it, chest-deep, whenever he got the chance. That first day, after his stablemates had cantered for an hour, Red Rum emerged from the slate-grey tide and – so the story goes – trotted out fit and well. Such is the curative nature of salt water that, until the eve of his retirement when preparing for the 1978 National, he would never be troubled by lameness again.

In the 1972-73 jumps season, Red Rum won his first five starts in the space of just seven weeks for McCain – ridden three times by Stack, once by Ron Barry and on the fifth occasion by Brian Fletcher, a quiet man from County Durham whom the trainer judged to be “one of the best Liverpool jockeys”. He’d already ridden Red Alligator to National victory in 1968 and told McCain that Red Rum “is a typical National horse. If you run this horse in the National, I would love to ride him.”

Since 1964, when plans to sell Aintree racecourse were announced by its owner, Mirabel Topham, every Grand National had been billed as potentially the last. As the 1973 edition approached, it was known that local property developer Bill Davies, a controversial figure, had struck a £3 million deal with Topham. The clock was ticking on the lifelong ambition shared by McCain and Le Mare.

From 1960, Aintree’s most famous race was televised by the BBC. On 31 March 1973, it formed part of a special edition of its popular Saturday afternoon live sports programme, Grandstand. Anchored by David Coleman, it also included a rugby union match between Scotland and a President’s XV from Murrayfield and a preview of that night’s heavyweight boxing bout – the first of three encounters between Muhammad Ali and Ken Norton.

The National was called for the BBC by its quintessential commentary team of Peter O’Sullevan, John Hanmer and Julian Wilson – you can still enjoy a grainy recording on YouTube. At 3.18pm, 38 runners set out on the journey of four miles and 856 yards.

“I can’t remember a horse so far ahead in the Grand National at this stage,” Wilson exclaimed with admiration, as Crisp and jockey Richard Pitman sailed over the 20th fence. Four fences later, he said: “Crisp jumps the Canal Turn. And he’s over it, clear. He’s still 20 lengths clear from Red Rum in second.”

McCain was watching from the top of the grandstand and has since claimed both that he felt “we’d be second and how unlucky we were to meet Crisp” and “I always thought we were going to get him”. Fletcher travelled in hope, however, and asked his mount to quicken. “If I’d ever said ‘I’m going to be second’, if I’d ever dropped my hands or eased off Red Rum for one moment, then I would have been second,” he later reflected.

Hanmer noted Fletcher’s move. “As they go across the Melling Road, with two to jump, it’s Crisp with Red Rum in second place making ground…”

In his familiar tones, O’Sullevan took up the call: “Dick Pitman coming to the Elbow now in the National. He’s got 250 yards to run. And Crisp just wandering a little off a true line now. He’s beginning to lose concentration. He’s been out there on his own for so long. And Red Rum is making ground on him…

Had his trainer not made that error, Le Mare wouldn’t have been in the market for Red Rum. Le Mare felt so sorry for the rueful McCain that he authorised him to bid up to 7,000 guineas.

“It’s a furlong to run now, 200 yards now for Crisp, and Red Rum still closing on him, and Crisp is getting very tired, and Red Rum is pounding after him. Red Rum is the one who’s finishing the strongest. He’s going to get up! Red Rum is going to win the National! And at the line, Red Rum has just snatched it from Crisp!”

With a time of 9 minutes 1.9 seconds, the course record held by Reynoldstown since 1935 was smashed by almost 20 seconds. Red Rum and a scarlet-faced Fletcher were mobbed by the jubilant crowd, requiring a police escort off the track. Beryl, in a blue coat and white Russian-style hat, was weeping on a woman’s shoulder. A dazed Le Mare needed a chair in the covered winner’s enclosure. A grinning McCain, in a big-collared brown sheepskin coat, was aglow.

Later, Birkdale’s Upper Aughton Road was blocked by police cars and hundreds of people awaiting their newly famous neighbour. When his horsebox eventually arrived, lights flashing and horn sounding, Red Rum was cheered down the ramp and paraded up the street – a celebration replicated more formally today in the home town of every Grand National winner.

‘Ginger’ McCain and the horse that made his name at his Southport stables

One of the reasons Red Rum had pierced the public’s consciousness was how artlessly the McCains enjoyed the media attention in an era when most racehorse trainers would have purpled with indignation at such informality. The BBC filmed the horse’s final pre-race gallop on Birkdale Sands and, on the momentous morning, positioned a camera inside his box to witness Beryl plaiting his mane. “We tried to share him as much as we could without compromising him,” McCain recalled. Red Rum soon became the people’s horse.

When he returned to Aintree 12 months later, he was imperious. So strongly did he travel under the top weight of 12 stone that, jumping Becher’s Brook for the second time, Fletcher was virtually upright in his stirrups to prevent his mount from running away with him. Their only scare came five fences from home when Red Rum uncharacteristically overjumped, his nose grazing the ground, forcing Fletcher to sit right back in the saddle to retain the partnership. 

Fletcher identified his mount’s essential talent: “He is not in my opinion a particularly brave jumper. He watches what he’s doing. If there’s any trouble near him, he’ll dodge out of it. He’s a very clever horse. This is a horse that has brains.”

Red Rum never fell and improbably negotiated five Nationals without major incident, despite the race in those days involving solid-core fences, with greater drops to the ground and uneven landing zones. All these features were modified by 2013 in response to widespread demands that Aintree improve its safety record.

His 1974 victory sealed Red Rum’s place in the nation’s affections. The first horse to win back-to-back Nationals since Reynoldstown in 1936, three weeks later he won the Scottish Grand National – an arduous feat still unmatched in the same season. Cards and mints from well-wishers arrived at McCain’s yard by the sack-load and passers-by would stop at his showroom to catch a glimpse.

Yet Red Rum’s bid for an unprecedented treble in 1975 – ultimately foiled by the previous year’s runner-up L’Escargot, who drew away after the final fence to leave his battling rival in second place – attracted the lowest attendance in living memory. Aintree’s new owner had trebled the price of admission. 

So, when Ladbrokes launched an appeal to save the race, the bookmaking company enlisted Aintree’s best marketing tool. Where previously there had been some apathy over its future, Red Rum’s heroic exploits reawakened the nation’s attachment to a sporting institution established in 1839. Even Prince Charles campaigned for its survival.

By negotiating a deal with Davies to manage Aintree for seven years from 1976, Ladbrokes had bought the Jockey Club enough time to muster £4 million to purchase the racecourse in 1983. Since then, attendance figures have more than trebled to 150,000 for the three-day meeting and, as any racegoer could testify, its link with its local community is stronger than perhaps any track in Britain. “The number one reason the Grand National is still raced at Aintree today is Red Rum,” Ladbrokes PR director Mike Dillon said.

If the race was more secure when Red Rum returned for a fourth National in 1976, the team around him had fractured. McCain and Fletcher fell out over a race at Newcastle, when the jockey failed to ride to the trainer’s expectations and even suggested the horse should be retired.

McCain, who received letters accusing him of making “one demand too many” of Red Rum, turned back to Stack. The Kerryman had become champion jump jockey for the first time the previous season. 

Red Rum himself was increasingly motivated solely by the sight of Aintree, running far below his best at other courses. In the National, he put on a bold show by leading at the final fence, only for Rag Trade – carrying almost a stone less – to surge past and leave Red Rum runner-up again. Some observers – Fletcher included – believed Stack had ridden too conservatively. Stack wondered publicly whether he had missed his chance.

A year later, at the age of 12, Red Rum was widely considered too old to run competitively in a National. McCain would later admit the horse was “showing signs of a small, gradual, but steady deterioration brought on by the passing years”. Yet down at the start on 2 April 1977, Stack felt differently. “He gave me the feeling that this is my place, this is my day,” he would recall.

In the race, two horses went clear before faltering – Boom Docker until refusing at the 17th and then Andy Pandy until falling at Becher’s Brook on the second circuit, leaving Red Rum in front. “And it’s Red Rum, with two loose horses around him now, just two fences left to jump between he and Grand National history,” said O’Sullevan. “But close in behind him is Churchtown Boy…”

Stack glanced at Churchtown Boy, gauging the threat, but that rival jumped the next less cleanly and Red Rum surged away. “They’re willing him home now, the 12-year-old Red Rum being preceded only by loose horses,” O’Sullevan continued. “And he’s coming up to the line to win it like a fresh horse in great style. It’s hats off and a tremendous reception – you’ve never heard one like it in Liverpool.”

Three Grand National triumphs remains a feat unmatched in history. Tiger Roll – the first dual winner since Red Rum – won back-to-back editions in 2018 and 2019 but didn’t contest a third. “Anything I could say wouldn’t do the horse justice,” said an overcome Stack on dismounting in 1977. “I think it’s bloody marvellous,” a jubilant McCain told BBC interviewer Frank Bough. 

Later that year, McCain and Red Rum would memorably appear as live studio guests in the BBC Sports Review of the Year show on the second floor of the New London Theatre. The horse – whose hearing was exceptionally acute – further endeared himself to the British public when recognising his jockey’s voice via video link. “He’s pricking his lugs up,” Stack noted. “He said: I’ve met that fella before some place.”

By now, Red Rum was a household name, travelling the country to open supermarkets, pubs and bookmakers, his image printed on playing cards, fine china and tea towels – hallmarks of celebrity in that era. He even became a limited company, his merchandise sold from a shop opposite McCain’s car showroom.

For “personal” appearances, he travelled in a luxurious new horsebox, accompanied by two permanent members of staff. Red Rum always enforced a strict rider about travel arrangements – he must have his back to the driver and occupy the right-hand side, no hay-net obscuring his view from the window. Occasionally, for amusement, he would press the alarm button with his lips.

A mural of Red Rum, by artist Paul Curtis, was commissioned by Sefton Council and unveiled in 2020 in Southport, near the beach the horse regularly trained on

It’s hard to imagine a horse, perhaps particularly a racehorse, being so much a part of the British zeitgeist nowadays. Desert Orchid, a flamboyant grey chaser who won a string of classier races mostly in the late 1980s, came close but it probably says something about the urbanisation of society and racing’s associated slide in the public’s regard that Red Rum’s fame is likely to remain unparalleled. 

Increasingly vocal concerns about fatalities over the National fences – and even opposition to the wider sport – have also impacted on the race’s popularity. Each year, despite many safety improvements, it faces vituperative criticism, both in parts of the mainstream media and via social platforms. In the early ’90s, 16 million Britons would tune in whereas – admittedly in a disparate televisual landscape – just 7.5 million watched ITV’s coverage in 2022. The event still transfixes a global audience, however, with a worldwide viewing figure of around 600 million.

Prior to the 1978 National, McCain recalled how “it was almost impossible to keep Red Rum out of the news”. Southport beach, gulls screaming overhead, was regularly crowded with media. Then word leaked out that the horse was suffering from a problem McCain couldn’t pin down, so medical bulletins about the “mystery ailment” were published daily.

McCain tweaked his traditional preparation, taking the horse to gallop at Aintree on the eve of the National in the hope of rekindling his motivation. In that he was successful, but Red Rum briefly took a lame step heading back to his horsebox. Back home, McCain’s vet gave him the bad news: a suspected stress fracture in the horse’s foot, risking the bone’s fatal collapse if he ran. A Daily Mail photographer captured the moment the diagnosis was delivered, triggering immediate retirement. “Red Rum out”, screamed its next-day front page.

Aintree racecourse invited the showman Red Rum to lead the pre-race parade the following day, launching his full-time career as a celebrity. Red Rum Ltd switched on the Blackpool lights that year and opened the Steeplechase roller coaster at its pleasure beach. Trains, fire engines, pubs and a road in Fazakerley, a north Liverpool suburb, were all named in his honour. Statues were commissioned at both Aintree and Ayr racecourses, as well as in Southport. His fame even reached Washington DC, where Red Rum Drive can be found in Ashburn, Virginia. 

Red Rum lived until he was 30, moving with the McCains in 1990 to Cholmondeley in the Cheshire countryside, where he succumbed to old age on 18 October 1995. Again, he was the lead news item. He was buried, facing towards victory, next to Aintree’s winning post – a spot marked by a headstone where his trainer annually laid flowers, as fans still do today.

McCain himself battled debt and a downturn in his training fortunes, but ultimately proved he was not a “one-horse trainer” when saddling Amberleigh House to Grand National victory in 2004. Two years later, his son Donald took over the reins at Bankhouse Stables and himself won Aintree’s famous race in 2011. His father died later that year, two days before his 81st birthday.

McCain Jr said in tribute: “Everyone saw the stroppy dad, the mouthing-off dad, the saying-too-much dad, but to me he was a loyal, very straight man.”

He did not live to see his granddaughters, Abbie and Ella, become professional jockeys nor Rachael Blackmore become the first woman jockey to win the Grand National in 2021 – a contest that McCain said, when Charlotte Brew became the first to take part in 1977, was “not a race for a woman”.

“I came into this sport when it was a man’s game. It’s my sport. I am possessive of it,” McCain, the increasingly performative sexist, said in his autobiography. “They tell me there are lady jockeys, but I insist there is no such thing. There are women that sit on horses.”

If the world moved beyond McCain, his horse’s legend has lived on. In 2006, the British public was asked to name a famous horse. Black Beauty, from Anna Sewell’s beloved novel, came second with 33 per cent of the vote. Forty-five per cent said Red Rum. His truth was more fantastic than her fiction and so he endures, an emblem of faithful courage in our collective memory.

Lydia Hislop is a journalist and broadcaster, and former professional gambler.

This piece originally appeared in Anniversary, the 11th edition of Tortoise Quarterly. Faith, and all other editions, are available in to order in glorious, old-fashioned print, at a special members’ discount.