50 year anniversary of Red Rum’s first Grand National win approaches as legend is honoured

Mick the Ram

Apr 4, 2023

Whichever jockey guides their horse to victory in the fast approaching 2023 Grand National, they will cross the line aware that 50 years ago this year was when the best steeplechaser and undoubtedly among the best ever racehorses, first came into public awareness.

He would go on to become a national treasure, a favourite not only with the purists, but also the part-time punters, as well as those with little or no interest in horse racing; and that of course was arguably the most famous racehorse ever… Red Rum.

It was in 1973 that a then 9-year-old bay thoroughbred won the first of his remarkable three Grand Nationals (he also finished second on his other two attempts at the race). However, his popularity would not develop until his later runs in subsequent years, because apart from those who had placed a bet on the 9/1 joint favourite, most neutrals were actually willing the horse he pipped on the line to gain success on that occasion, following what many argue is the best race in National history.

Incredibly demanding race

The Grand National is still a tough race to win, but back in 1973 it was something of a feat to actually complete the incredibly demanding four and a half mile course. Not only the energy sapping distance, but also the 30 obstacles to overcome, including some huge fences with difficult take off and landings to contend with, plus of course upwards of 40 other competing horses. It is without doubt the ultimate test of a horse and jockey’s courage.

Eyeing up the competition

For the 127th running of the great spectacle at Aintree in Liverpool, Red Rum had attracted a lot of late support in the betting ring, enough indeed to bring him up to join favourite with Crisp, a prodigious talent who went off as the top weight carrying 12 stone (a weight now forbidden on health and safety grounds), but this was a significant step up in trip for the the leading Australian chaser.

Richard Pitman was the jockey onboard Crisp and he recalled hearing the public address system announce the shift in betting and although noticing that his mount was substantially taller than the robust Red Rum, he remembered making a conscious note to keep his eye the potential rival.

Crisp takes a tasty lead

They went off at a good gallop and Crisp was right up with the first three or four and travelling well. At Becher’s Brook, the sixth and possibly the most famous fence on the racetrack, Crisp leapt into the lead and as Pitman remarked, by the time he had negotiated the Chair – the 15th and biggest obstacle in the race – he was so far ahead he couldn’t hear anything else, which for the National was extremely unusual.

At Becher’s second time around he heard the commentator say he was 25 lengths clear and Brian Fletcher was said to already be hard at work on his closest challenger Red Rum, trying to get back on terms. A fallen jockey at the next fence informed Pitman that he was in actual fact 33 lengths clear with just 7 fences to jump. He considered kicking on, but realising stamina was crucial and this was unknown territory for his horse, he decided to hold on to him a while longer.

Out on his own too long

Everything seemed well he said until two fences out, then his horse gave his first signal of fatigue. “His legs, instead of going out in front of him, were slightly going out sideways and even his ears lost their strength and went down, which is a sure sign that he had got to the bottom of the barrel,” Pitman explained.

At this point the jockey remembered he was for the first time aware of the drumming sound of his pursuer Red Rum’s hooves and it was progressively getting louder. After clearing the last he still had a 15 length lead, but his horse, having been alone up front for so long, began to wander as he approached what is known as the elbow, about halfway down the run in.

Red Rum’s relentless pursuit

Red Rum, now with all the momentum and with his target in sight, relentlessly pulled the ground back. By the time Crisp had begun running correctly again it was too late, Red Rum was along side and past in a flash and crossed the line to win by three-quarters of a length. The winning time was a then record of 9 minutes,1.9 seconds, knocking 20 seconds off the previous best.

Pitman was gracious in defeat, saying afterwards: “I had the ride of my life, something money cannot buy. It was an amazing roller-coaster of emotions.”

Double national winner in two senses of the word

Red Rum, or “Rummy” as he would affectionately become known as, was cast as the villain of the piece, his triumph not really receiving the enormous credit it deserved, simply due to the heartbreak suffered by the second horse. This was certainly put right 12 months later when carrying a massive 12 stones, he comfortably held off the challenge of rival L’Escargot to retain his crown by 7 lengths.

Three weeks later he won the Scottish version at Ayr, becoming the first horse to win both Nationals in the same season, a record that still stands today. 

Two seconds doesn’t necessarily signal end

In 1975 the same two horses contested the run in and despite giving it his best shot, weight and soft ground meant “Rummy” had to concede to his rival and two-times Gold Cup winner, and settle for second place.

A year later he was back with a replacement jockey. Fletcher had fallen out with trainer Donald “Ginger” McCain and it was now Tommy Stack riding. An impressive Rag Trade was just too good for him on the day, although Red Rum pushed the winner all the way, to claim second spot again.

Trainer under pressure to withdraw horse from ’77 race

By now Red Rum was a nation’s favourite and as the 1977 race approached, McCain was being berated for not withdrawing him from participation, with critics believing he was past his best and it was a massive risk to allow him to run. He still attracted plenty of support in the betting, although much of this was through sentiment rather than genuine optimism; but this was Aintree, and the horse just loved the track having never run a bad race there.

Things “fall” into place

The now 12-years-old was nicely placed as the field set off on the second circuit of the demanding track, but the chasing group trailed eight to ten lengths behind the market leader, Andy Pandy, as they approached Becher’s Brook. If he had stayed on his feet maybe the result would have been different, but the favourite tumbled on landing and then at the next fence another faller left “Rummy” in front.

He took the Canal Turn brilliantly and although chased by Churchtown Boy, he was effectively home and dry, as long as he could safely jump the last six fences. Once the final hurdle was negotiated the noise from the crowd was deafening and with ears pricked and seemingly relishing the adulation coming his way, he sprinted to the line to win his record third Grand National by a magnificent 25 lengths.

Legendary piece of commentary

It is regarded by many as one of the greatest moments in horse racing history. The BBC commentator Peter O’Sullivan’s description of his run in is now of legendary status: “He’s getting the most tremendous cheer from the crowd; 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!”

TV celebrity

In the same year, the horse appeared on the BBC Sports Personality of the Year awards show and caused huge amusement in the crowd when his ears pricked up as he seemingly recognised the voice of his jockey Tommy Stack, who was appearing via a video link from an entirely different location. That was essentially the start of his “new career” as a celebrity.

Still leading the others

He was entered in the 1978 National to attempt to win a fourth title, but he suffered a hairline fracture in the lead up to the race and was retired on the day before it went off, which was headline news not just in the newspapers, but also on the main News bulletins. He did however lead the parade of the horses, something he would return to do each year for the remainder of his days.

He was big business, opening supermarkets and making guest appearances here, there and everywhere. His image was on playing cards, mugs, posters, models, paintings, tea towels, plates, pretty much anything.

Rummy helps save future of race

What many people were not aware of was how indirectly Red Rum actually saved the race from closure. The year of his astonishing first victory when chasing down Crisp in 1973,  the Aintree racecourse had been sold to property developers. Ladbrokes, the bookmakers, immediately granted the course a stay of execution when it negotiated a seven-year lease and in the process bought some time for a proper rescue package.

A young company executive named Mike Dillon saw the potential “Rummy” held in promoting the race and with the help of the superstar horse, raised the profile of the event to such an extent, it could not be lost.

Shared dream starts Rummy’s National journey

Incredibly, none of this remarkable story would have happened had it not been for a chance meeting in a Merseyside taxi. Donald “Ginger” McCain had a permit to train horses, but was struggling to find any winners and drove cabs to make a living. One of his fares was Noel Le Mare, a local millionaire.

Their conversation got around to how they both shared a dream of winning the Grand National. Shortly afterwards, McCain attended the Doncaster sales and bid on Le Mare’s behalf to purchase the seven-year-old, fifth-hand, Red Rum for 6,000 guineas.

Sea water cures crippling disease

His stables were run down and the horse arrived as a virtual cripple, with the debilitating bone disease pedal osteitis in his hoof and seemingly incurable.

Nevertheless, McCain spotted something in him which nobody else had and he was able to stimulate an amazing transformation in the horse by galloping him on the sands and in the sea water on Southport beach. It proved to be therapeutic and after winning five races in a row at the end of 1972, he was aimed at the ’73 Grand National.

From sprints to marathon runner

Remarkably, Red Rum was actually bred to be a sprinter – his sire was Quorum (a 2,000 Guineas runner-up) and his dam Mared, with the last three letters of each name forming his. He dead-heated in his opening outing, which  ironically was at Aintree, in a five-furlong flat as a two-year-old. Indeed, flat racing champion jockey Lester Piggott even rode him on a couple of occasions.

Trophies on display

To mark the 50th anniversary of his memorable first National success, all of the horses’ trophies which he won at Aintree during his incredible career, are being returned to the racecourse to be placed on display at the forthcoming Grand National Festival, from Thursday, 13 April to Saturday, 15 April.

They had been housed at the Liverpool Museum, but with full cooperation from the Le Mare family, they will be brought “home”as part of a wider “Red Rum 50” project, that is going to be on-going between this year and 2027, which of course will be 50 years after the record breaking third victory, and which will be commemorating all things Red Rum.

As part of the campaign a bar at the course will be renamed the “Rum & Ginger” bar and will include a visual timeline of Red Rum’s astonishing achievements.

Economical jumping key to success

Whatever it was about the old course, it certainly brought out the best in Red Rum. His greatest strength was his ability to measure each fence with an economy of effort. Over his career he raced at Aintree seven times, winning four times and finishing second in the other three.

Third win “the best”

In his 10 years of racing he won on 27 occasions, was placed a further 37 times, and never fell in any of his 100 races. He was ridden by 24 different jockeys and had 5 separate trainers, but undoubtedly McCain was the one who he responded to better than any other.

When asked which of his three wins was his best, the trainer remarked that although all three had their own particular merit, with the third being the perfect answer to those who questioned his inclusion, and the second seeing him defy the staggering 12 stone burden; for him it would have to be the first.

“In all honesty you never think you’re going to win a National, all you do is go with the hope you’ll run a big race” he said. Of course he did more than that by completing the most spectacular of chases in hunting down Crisp, and not only that, but doing so in a record time, not just beating the previous one, but smashing it out of sight.

“Only one Red Rum”

Speaking to the press following Red Rum’s death, the politically-incorrect McCain, who had a sense of humour which was often described as “an acquired taste” said in an interview: “One of your daft reporter fellows said it must have been like losing the wife when he died. Losing the wife? There are 25 million women in the country, but there was and always will only be, one Red Rum.”

Poetic age to leave?

The horse died on 18 October, 1995, at the age of thirty, which is almost poetic, given the number of fences in what was and to many still is, his race. His ashes are buried at the winning post at the Aintree course. His epitaph reads: “Respect this place, this hallowed ground, a legend here, his rest has found. His feet would fly, our spirits soar, he earned our love for evermore.” 

Grand National legend

He may not have been overwhelmingly popular at the end of his race 50 years ago, but there has never been a more popular horse cross the finishing line of any Grand National since and it is unlikely there will ever be, in the years to come either.

Red Rum is written in Grand National folklore.


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