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Grand National: Shadow cast over Ballabriggs' triumph

By Chris McGrath

Balloons in the colours of owner Trevor Hemmings were tied to the stable gates yesterday morning, and it seemed as though the whole Cheshire landscape was conspiring in the celebrations.

Yellow daffodils lined the lanes of the Cholmondeley estate, white clouds of blackthorn flared along the hedges and green swathes of pasture glistened in the warm sunshine.

In every direction, horses grazed peacefully. Others peered out of their cool stalls across the cobbled yard. And here — his coat and eye unclouded by what he had achieved, and endured, the day before — was the winner of the most famous steeplechase on the planet.

God, surely, was in his heaven, and all right with the world.

Yet it was precisely these springtime glories that had been so inimical to what might otherwise have united the nation in another Aintree fairytale.

The death of two horses in the John Smith's Grand National had served as a ghastly counterpoint to the dauntless courage of Ballabriggs.

Jason Maguire, his jockey, had led his pursuers round two bypassed fences on the second circuit, and as he did so millions had glimpsed the harrowing reasons why.

As soon as he passed the winning post, moreover, Maguire leaped to the ground and tore off the saddle, as buckets of water were urgently splashed across the horse.

Had it still been left to the trainer's father to clarify the moral complexities of the moment, as he sipped his champagne yesterday, the sport might have regretted even his unprecedented place in its folklore.

Ginger McCain, who saddled Red Rum and Amberleigh House to win four Nationals between them, was predictably incorrigible.

In his day, it is true, Aintree was less sparing still.

But his son, Donald, did not need to win a National to identify himself as his own man. The things he is doing here, after all, are a world apart from Red Rum

galloping over the strand at Southport. As befits a younger generation, he acknowledged the dilemmas of his calling — but urged those beyond the racing parish to temper their recriminations.

It is not as if his community lacks a proper grasp of the hazards. Earlier on the National card a young rider, Peter Toole, suffered head injuries in a hurdle race. He remained in an induced coma yesterday.

McCain Jr, meanwhile, could point directly across from the stable that houses Ballabriggs to one that has stood empty since Thursday. Inventor, the other equine casualty of the three-day National meeting, had also taken his fall over hurdles.

Yet to any outsider, these trifling timber boards would look utterly innocuous, compared to the giant spruce fences on the National course.

“My horse was killed over hurdles,” McCain Jr remarked.

“I've worked on the Flat, and seen them get killed even on the gallops. There are risks in any sport.

“Nobody cares more about horses than we do.

“They are treated like royalty, and they have an awful lot better life than they would otherwise.

“There's no great joy for horses being stuck in a field. And if a horse doesn't want to jump Aintree, it won't jump Aintree.”

McCain Jr was effusive in his praise for Aintree, where “no stone is left unturned” in making the race as safe as possible.

As for McCain Sr, he realised a long-held ambition to see his son follow in his footsteps.

He said: “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.

“He is a good trainer. If he'd just take up smoking or womanising, or something like that, so the pedigree could come out!”

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