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Ginger McCann was a National hero

By Chris McGrath

If Ginger McCain happens to have written his own epitaph, the engraver will want to be sure he is paid by the word.

So long as he brings a broad mind to the job, he might soon decide it is worth doing for nothing. For whatever he might gain in wisdom, he will surely receive ample reward in laughter.

McCain, who died yesterday, aged 80, so enriched racing that you would forgive him nearly anything. And that was just as well. He had an incorrigible instinct for the wind-up.

As it turns out, our last conversation could scarcely have been more redolent of the unique Ginger spice. But then he was always putting on a show.

Practically everything he said had the instant patina of famous last words. The previous afternoon, Ginger had watched his son, Donald, win the Grand National with Ballabriggs.

For 27 years after Red Rum, Ginger had endured the widespread suspicion that he had stumbled across a horse so freakish that even a Southport taxi driver, as he’d been, couldn't prevent him winning three Nationals.

Some, by this stage, had concluded that Ginger was not so much an institution as a man who should be locked away in one. And then his temerity found fresh, unanswerable expression. In 2004 he won the race again, with Amberleigh House.

Two years later, aged 75, he handed over his training licence to Donald. They had long since abandoned the old cobbled yard in Southport, where Red Rum was stabled behind a car showroom, and come to the stately parklands of Cholmondeley, in Cheshire. But what was really going upmarket now was the quality of the horses. By the time they returned to Aintree in April, Donald had already far surpassed his father's achievements in every other measure — whether by the number of races won, or their stature.

All that remained was for Donald to show that he had also inherited the definitive, Aintree gene, among the others that must have been culpably overlooked, or so it now seemed, in the old man.

Still tall, florid of feature and plain of speech, Ginger, finding two or three journalists together, recalled lying in a hospital bed last Christmas Eve.

“I was in a six-bed ward,” he said. “Within a week four of the other buggers had snuffed it. I told the doctor he wouldn't be getting a 100 per cent record out of me, and was out of there that night. I'm not kidding myself, I'm 80 years old, but I always said I'd like to see that young'un win a National before I turned my toes up. And I've done it now.”

He lowered his tone confidentially. “I never dreamt I'd say this, but he is a good trainer.” A pause, a theatrical grimace. “Now if he'd just take up smoking or womanising, something like that, so the pedigree could come out!”

Nothing frightened Ginger, and sometimes that made you want to protect him especially if you were Beryl, the fierce little woman with whom he shared an endless pantomime of mutual despair.

“Harvey Smith told me to get rid of Beryl,” he would pronounce. “Because she is too old to breed, and too savage to keep as a pet.”

But he had one abiding comfort. The institution he most adored, the Grand National, would be eternally synonymous with a horse that found unaccountable fulfilment in a trainer who had taken 12 years even to win a selling plate.

His greatest adventures had seemed destined to remain behind the wheel of his taxi, as when he once chauffeured a lion to London, or took Frank Sinatra around Southport in search of a hairbrush. (“An insignificant little man,” McCain remembered. “I always thought Bing Crosby was better.”)

He had seen, in boyhood, the shrimpers' carts in the bay, and how the horses' old limbs were soothed by the salt water.

And so he would gallop Red Rum across the great strand at Southport.

He always said that the horse would never have lasted anywhere else. “I needed Red Rum,” he would admit. “But he needed Ginger McCain, and he needed Southport.”

Ginger's legacy has long seemed guaranteed. Nobody who saw Red Rum will forget him.

Belfast Telegraph


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