Red Rum is arguably the most famous racehorse in history and is often credited with ‘saving’ the Grand National. Even those with practically no knowledge of horse racing have probably heard of this remarkable Gelding. Although he is best known for his trio of Grand National wins in the 1970s (the only horse to have achieved the feat), Red Rum actually ran in 100 races and it is a testament to his jumping ability that he had precisely zero falls in his long and glorious career; although he did ‘slip up’ once and also unseated his rider on another occasion.
There are several statues of this great horse at different racecourses across the UK and as well as having a race named after him at Aintree (Red Rum Handicap Chase), he was also given the freedom of Southport! In this article, I will look at how this horse became a legend with the aid of his trainer Ginger McCain.
Although he is a UK racing icon, ‘Rummy’ was actually bred in Ireland by Martin McEnery at the Rossenarra stud in County Kilkenny to be precise. His dam was Mared while his stallion was Quorum and Red Rum was born on 3 May 1965. Looking back on it now, it seems incredible to think that the ultimate stayer was actually bred as a one miler! He was first sold at an auction in Dublin where he cost 400 guineas.
He began well enough with a dead heat in his first race at Aintree as a 2yo; you may be stunned to learn that it was a flat race over 5 furlongs. Despite claiming a few victories, there was little to suggest that Red Rum was destined for greatness. In the 1969/70 season, for example, he ran 14 races and didn’t record a single victory. By now, he had been upped in distance and started to run 3-mile events as a 5yo.
One of the features of Red Rum’s career was the large number of jockeys he was paired with; over 20 in total. He also had several trainers at the beginning; Bobby Renton, Tommy Stack and Anthony Gillam; none of whom could find the winning formula for long. It was only at the end of the 1972 season when Red Rum showed a glimpse of his promise. He was entered in the Scottish Grand National of that season and finished in 5th place after leading for part of the race. Despite this creditable performance, Red Rum was sent to the Doncaster Sales later that year; this decision changed the course of racing history.
Add Ginger for Success
Donald ‘Ginger’ McCain happened to be at the 1972 Doncaster Sales where he was specifically looking for a Grand National horse. One of the horse owners he worked with, Noel le Mare, had developed something of an obsession with winning the famous race. While McCain had already bought a horse called Glenkiln for le Mare, he was given permission to purchase another.
McCain bought Red Rum for 6,600 guineas but was devastated to quickly learn that his new purchase had a debilitating foot disease called pedal osteitis. This incurable condition was almost certainly a factor in the horse’s mixed performances. Instead of writing off the investment, McCain noticed that Red Rum’s gallop improved when he ran in sea water. This was a trick he had learned in his years as a trainer; he had seen many a horse benefit from the sea water.
From then on, the partnership became famous for their training sessions on the sands and sea of Southport. Indeed, Ginger took his prized pupil for a therapeutic swim prior to his first appearance in the Grand National.
The 1972/73 season started exceptionally well as Red Rum won his first five races; four of them were 3m while the fifth was a 3m 3f 150 yard race at Ayr. It was the start of a fantastic 21 race spell where he was in the top two 18 times with 13 of them victories.
In what turned out to be a brilliant decision, McCain decided to give Red Rum a break over winter. He returned with three races in 1973; he finished in the top four in all of them but didn’t win any. This didn’t bother his trainer who was simply ensuring his horse was in peak condition for the 1973 Grand National.
A Grand National Legend is born
Although those in power didn’t want to admit it, the Grand National event was facing a crisis by the early 1970s. A combination of declining facilities, arguments over ownership of Aintree and crucially, dwindling attendances, put the great race’s very existence under threat.
One of the many reasons for Red Rum’s fame was his role in restoring the Grand National to the pinnacle of the race calendar. His first entry into the event happened to be arguably the single greatest Grand National race ever. Despite being 23 pounds lighter, it appeared as if Red Rum had been outclassed by the excellent Australian horse Crisp as he trailed by around 20 lengths for much of the race.
Crisp was seemingly cruising and only Red Rum could (barely) keep within touching distance. At one point, Crisp was almost 30 lengths clear but began to visibly tire. However, he was still at least 15 lengths clear after clearing the last but what happened next remains one of the all-time great National moments. Red Rum and his jockey Brian Fletcher rapidly covered the ground and closed in on Crisp who was almost at a standstill coming towards the line.
Crisp’s jockey Richard Pitman desperately tried to steer his horse across the line but was devastated to see Red Rum sneak past him just two strides from the end. Red Rum defeated the exhausted Crisp by ¾ of a length and so began the horse’s love affair with the National. He also beat Golden Miller’s course record by more than 18 seconds.
The Follow Up
In the following season, Red Rum looked to retain his crown and was in fine form with four wins and three-second places; this included second place at the 1974 Gold Cup where he was defeated by Red Candle. The only real blemish on the season was at Haydock Park where he unseated his rider. Other than that, he was tipped to be prominent in the National where he set off at odds of 11/1. Because Crisp was injured, Red Rum was given the top weight of 12 stone which had burdened his great rival the previous year.
If punters were put off by Red Rum’s top weight designation, they should have known better as he became the first horse since Reynoldstown to win back-to-back Nationals; L’escargot was in second place. McCain quickly announced his intention to go for the record the following year but first, he watched on with pride as Rummy capped off an incredible season with a victory at the 1974 Scottish Grand National.
McCain clearly had his eye on the grand prize so Red Rum only ran six times in the 1974/75 season. He was installed as 11/4 for the 1975 Grand National but found L’escargot too hot to handle on the day and was beaten into second. As well as giving up 11 pounds, Red Rum also had to contend with ‘dead’ ground which he always hated. It was a close race until the last couple of flights but there was to be no three in a row.
Despite finishing as runner-up, Ginger McCain announced his delight with the performance and said Red Rum would be back again in 1976. However, the season ended on a downbeat note as he finished way off the pace in the Scottish National.
While the last couple of seasons had gone smoothly, 1975/76 was the complete opposite. Red Rum was 11 years old and well over a year had passed without a win. Even though McCain always had confidence in his horse at Aintree, a number of jockeys that partnered with Red Rum were convinced the horse was finished as a major force. Brian Fletcher was established as Rummy’s #1 jockey but openly stated that the horse was in decline. An irate McCain replaced Fletcher with Tommy Stack for the 1976 National.
Considering his poor form, Red Rum exceeded expectations with a fine second placed performance. He finished behind Rag Trade and was actually closing down his rival in the home stretch. This was impressive as he was carrying top weight for the third year in a row.
Red Rum won his first race of the 1976/77 season but McCain was solely focused on the Grand National in 1977. The event attracted one of the largest crowds in recent years and they were treated to an all-time great performance by the event’s favourite son. Once again, he was top weight and it was Tommy Stack on board for the race.
He started at 9/1 but soon proceeded to make those odds look ridiculous as he was strong throughout and got to the front by Beecher’s Brook on the second circuit. While he was only three lengths clear at the second last, he accelerated away from the field and was a handsome winner. Red Rum was now a three-time Grand National winner and had cemented his place in folklore.
It was to be the last victory of Red Rum’s storied career. Once again, McCain prepared his horse for the Grand National but Rummy would not compete in the 1978 event. A routine training gallop a week before the race revealed a stress fracture which not only ended his chances of a fourth Grand National triumph, it also ended his career as McCain promptly retired his all-time great gelding.
After leading the parade for the 1978 Grand National instead of competing in it, Red Rum was to become an iconic figure with his image used in all sorts of promotional material. You could get playing cards, paintings, posters and other assorted items with his likeness emblazoned on it. He was often a special guest at opening ceremonies and always attracted a crowd.
The racing world mourned when it learned of Red Rum’s death on 18 October 1995; he had a heart attack and Ginger McCain had no choice but to put his beloved horse down. He was 30 years old and was rightfully buried at the winning post at Aintree where he gave punters and race fans so many wonderful days. Not only was he the greatest Grand National horse of all time, he could arguably be credited with saving the race or, at the very least; helping to turn it into the global phenomenon it is today.