“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 at Liverpool. Red Rum wins the National.” Those were the words of the erstwhile ‘Voice of Racing’, Sir Peter O’Sullevan, as the 12-year-old Red Rum, trained by the late Donald ‘Ginger’ McCain and ridden by Tommy Stack, galloped into race guides and racing history with a 25-length win in the 1977 Grand National.
Red Rum remains the only horse to have won the world’s greatest steeplechase three times. His record-breaking hat-trick was all the more remarkable for the fact that he suffered from a debilitating condition called ‘pedalosteitis’, which caused him to have very delicate, tender feet. Indeed, ‘Rummy’, as the horse affectionately became known, had already had several skilful trainers before McCain – a blunt, plain-talking Northerner – bought him for 6,000 guineas on behalf of owner Noel Le Mare at Doncaster Sales in August, 1972.
However, in the absence of grass gallops, McCain worked his new acquisition on the vast expanse of Southport beach, where the cold waters of the Irish Sea brought about a remarkable transformation in the once crippled horse. He returned sound; sound enough, in fact, to win his first five races for Donald McCain and was subsequently allotted 10st 5lb for his first attempt at the Grand National, in 1973.
Red Rum, ridden by Brian Fletcher, started 9/1 joint favourite with Crisp, ridden by Richard Pitman, and the two of them produced arguably the most thrilling finish ever seen at Aintree. Carrying top weight of 12st 0lb, Crisp jumped to the front at Becher’s Brook on the first circuit and was still 15 lengths ahead of Red Rum jumping the final fence. However, approaching the infamous ‘Elbow’ Pitman made the mistake of letting go of the horse’s head to reach for his whip. Crisp hung off a straight line, losing three lengths in the process and, agonisingly, Red Rum made relentless progress on the run-in, wearing down his exhausted rival in the dying strides to win by an unlikely threequarters of a length.
At the time, much of the media attention centred on Crisp and his valiant effort to concede 23lb to his younger rival, but the time, 9 minutes 1.9 seconds, beat the previous course record, achieved by Golden Miller in 1934, by nearly 20 seconds and would not be beaten until Mr. Frisk’s effort on unusually firm going in 1990.
Portrayed by some as the villain of the piece in 1973, Red Rum returned to Aintree for the 1974 Grand National, but this time himself carrying top weight of 12st 0lb. Partnered, as previously, by Brian Fletcher Red Rum was sent off 11/ third favourite, but duly obliged once again, passing the post seven lengths ahead of L’Escargot. In so doing, he became the first horse since Reynoldstown in 1936 to win the Grand National two years running. Just three weeks later, Red Rum won the Scottish Grand National at Ayr under 11st 13lb. He remains the only horse ever to have won both races.
Red Rum and L’Escargot also finished first and second in the 1975 Grand National but, having jumped the last together, it was L’Escargot, aided by a 10lb weight pull, who proved too strong this time, drawing away to win by 15 lengths. Red Rum subsequently finished second in the 1976 Grand National, rallying strongly in the closing stages, but ultimately going down by two lengths to Rag Trade.
New jockey Tommy Stack received criticism, including from Brian Fletcher, for not seizing the initiative sooner, but the Kerryman was to have the last laugh as far as Red Rum was concerned. When the pair lined up for the 1977 Grand National, some observers believed that, as a 12-year-old, Red Rum was too long in the tooth for the demands of the race. However, nothing could have been further from the truth because, having been left in the lead at Becher’s Brook on the second circuit, where the clear leader Andy Pandy fell, Red Rum was never in danger of defeat and eventually sauntered home by 25 lengths from Churchtown Boy.
After the hullabaloo of his record-breaking victory died down, Red Rum remained in training for a sixth attempt at the Grand National in 1978 but, having been diagnosed with a hairline fracture, missed the race and was duly retired. By that time, Red Rum was a household name, as was his ‘colourful’ trainer Donald McCain, and he made dozens of public appearances, even appearing as a studio guest at the BBC Sports Personality of the Year awards ceremony in 1977, until his death, at the age of 30, in 1995.
Fittingly, he was buried on the finishing line at Aintree and is commemorated by a magnificent life-sized bronze statue at the course. In over 100 races, he never fell, although he did unseat his rider once, and came to epitomise all that was, and is, ‘Grand’ about the Grand National at a time when the future of the great race hung in the balance. In a poll, conducted by the Racing Post, to find the favourite racehorse of all time in Britain and Ireland, Red Rum finished third, behind only Arkle and Desert Orchid.