Red Rum was one of the greatest steeplechasers of all time, overcoming adversity to win the Grand National an unequalled three times, capturing the public imagination
and securing the future of this historic race, says Neil Clark

Before settling down to read about the remarkable Red Rum, be sure to check out more racing features from The Field, including 100 years of the Cheltenham Gold Cup and our guide to the best luxury country hats – essential to top a grand day out at Aintree.

Red Rum: the story of Aintree’s finest

The date is Saturday, 30 March 1974, the place is Aintree and 42 horses line up at the start of the 128th running of the Grand National. Scout is the 7/1 favourite, followed at 17/2 by the dual Gold Cup winner L’Escargot, who was third 12 months earlier. The previous year’s winner, Red Rum, is only third favourite and has drifted out to 11/1 just before the off.

In 1973 Ginger McCain’s locally trained charge had played the role of pantomime villain as he deprived the gallant, front-running Crisp of victory in the dying strides of the four-mile, four-furlong marathon. Almost everyone felt sorry for Crisp then but it is in the 1974 National that Red Rum, who is now the one having to carry 12 stone, became a hero in his own right.

On that spring day at Liverpool 50 years ago ‘Rummy’ was simply sensational. Ridden once more by Brian Fletcher, he took the lead at the second Becher’s. Half a mile from home, he still hadn’t come off the bridle. The pursuing L’Escargot cut the lead to three lengths but after the second last Red Rum powered clear to win comfortably. No horse has carried 12 stone or more to victory since Reynoldstown in 1936. No horse had won back-to-back Grand Nationals since then either. But incredibly there was much more to come.

A remarkable racing record

The year 1974 marks only the midway point in Red Rum’s Aintree winning streak. He ran in the Grand National a further three times, finishing second in both 1975 and 1976 before pulling off a tremendous, record-breaking third win at the age of 12 in 1977 in a race cheered on, it seems, by the entire country watching on the course or on television. By that stage Red Rum, the National specialist, had become a national treasure, attaining a level of popularity that no other steeplechaser, with the possible exception of Desert Orchid, has achieved since. He is a horse that after retirement would draw in huge crowds to see him opening supermarkets. Aintree racecourse was threatened with closure and property development in the 1970s but that became unthinkable after Red Rum captured the public imagination. By winning the National three times, many would say he saved the historic race he made his own.

Red Rum’s defeat of Crisp in 1973 was one of the most gripping races in Grand National history

If the Red Rum story were to be made into a film – and one wonders why this hasn’t been done yet – an apt subtitle would be ‘Stranger than Fiction’. The number of obstacles (no pun intended) the horse had to overcome was amazing. Take his breeding. Born in Ireland in 1965, there was nothing in the bloodlines to suggest he’d win one Grand National, let alone three. His dam, Mared, won only once as a two-year-old and has been described as ‘wildly temperamental’ and ‘fairly useless’. His sire, Quorum, won the Sussex Stakes and was second in the 2000 Guineas. On pedigree you’d have expected Red Rum to be at his best at up to a mile. But while he did win thrice on the flat, he came into his own when he went over three miles plus and other horses were literally falling by the wayside.

His first trainer was Tim Molony, who bought him at the Dublin sales in September 1966 for just 400 guineas (a guinea was worth £1.05). On his racecourse debut Red Rum dead-heated in a five-furlong seller at Aintree in 1967 on the day before the dramatic Foinavon Grand National. The following year he ran at Liverpool again and this time was ridden by one Lester Piggott. He was beaten by a short-head. After the race Molony received the unwelcome news that the horse had been sold to Lurline Brotherton and would be moved to the yard of veteran jumps trainer Bobby Renton in North Yorkshire. 

Red Rum’s mixed results

Red Rum stayed at Oxclose Stables for the next five years, first trained by Renton and then, after his retirement, by jockey Tommy Stack (briefly) and Anthony Gillam. His record was mixed. He made a promising start over hurdles in 1968 and 1969, finishing second at Cheltenham and winning three times before the season’s end. But the next year, with the yard hit by a virus, results were poor, with no wins from 14 outings. On his first day’s schooling over fences, the horse that went on to jump the old, terrifying Becher’s Brook 10 times without mishap blundered over the first and refused at the second. However, that Season novice chasing did bring three victories; two more followed the next year. But after winning at Catterick on New Year’s Day 1972 Red Rum’s racing career could well have been over. Foot problems had surfaced before that run but after it he came home lame. Chronic pedal osteitis in his off-fore was diagnosed. The vet is said to have told Gillam gloomily: “Few horses get over it.”

Physiotherapy and the fitting of special hoof pads were recommended. Red Rum was given time to recover, and back on the racecourse his best run came in April when he finished fifth in the Scottish Grand National: a clear indication that extreme distances and good spring ground were what he required. But at the end of the season his owner decided to sell him and so it was that Red Rum ended up as Lot 43 at the Doncaster August Sales in 1972. He might have been bought by Gillam, who didn’t want to lose the horse. Captain Tim Forster, racing’s most magnificent pessimist, was also bidding. But he was purchased for 6,000 guineas by Ginger McCain. The rest, as they say, is history.

Red Rum training on the beach at Birkdale, Southport, for the 1974 Grand National. (Photo by Evening Standard/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

However, it wasn’t all down to McCain, brilliant though he was, but where he trained. Probably no yard in the country was closer to the sea than McCain’s in Birkdale, a suburb of Southport. And that one fact plays a major part in the success of Red Rum, whose foot problems resurfaced. On the first morning out trotting with McCain, he went lame. The trainer gave instructions for his new purchase to be taken into the sea. The seawater worked its magic. With regular paddling and working on harrowed sand Red Rum’s pedal osteitis disappeared. Speaking to Ivor Herbert in 1974, Brotherton reflected: “Of all the hundreds of people who could have bought him, it just happened to be a man who had only the beach to train on.” 

The role of lady luck

Location wasn’t the only lucky coincidence in the Red Rum story. Having taken out his first permit in 1952, McCain had to wait 13 years before saddling his first winner. He kept afloat by taxi-driving and selling second-hand cars; his stable was behind his showroom. Probably the most famous person he had in the back of his cab was Frank Sinatra, who he chauffeured to Blackpool but who never gave him a tip. A far more propitious fare was the local octogenarian millionaire Noel Le Mare who, like McCain, dreamt of winning the Grand National. Le Mare tasked McCain with buying him a horse that was qualified for the race. The latter went to Doncaster and bought Glenkiln for 1,000 guineas. He did well with the horse but then made a terrible error. He accidentally struck Glenkiln out of the entries for the 1972 Grand National. It was a mistake that turned out to be the best thing McCain did in his life. Le Mare now needed another horse for the National and so it was that McCain went again to the sales. This time he bought Red Rum.

Red Rum jumping the water at Aintree in 1977

Red Rum jumping the water in 1977 – jockeyed by Tommy Stack

In a six-week period in the autumn of 1972 Red Rum won five races in a row for his new handler. That season of great improvement culminated in his unforgettable overhauling of Crisp. In 1973 and 1974 there were a further four wins before his second National success. And then, just three weeks later, McCain boldly sent Red Rum to Ayr to contest the Scottish Grand National, carrying top weight again. No horse had ever won the two Nationals in the same Season. Surely it was too big an ask? Result: Red Rum won again. His two Grand National defeats were almost as impressive as his victories. In 1975 the horse battled stoically on unsuitably soft ground to finish second to his old rival L’Escargot, to whom he gave 11lb. In 1976, having jumped the last in front, he only went down to Rag Trade, carrying 12lb less, by two lengths. A year later came his glorious third victory.

Left in the lead by Andy Pandy’s fall at Becher’s second time around, Red Rum, now ridden by Tommy Stack, had eight fences between him and sporting immortality. He didn’t let anyone down. He won by 25 lengths. “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,” cried Peter O’Sullevan, the voice of racing. Fifty years on from his second Grand National success, Red Rum’s achievements remain unsurpassed.

Red Rum is incomparable with today’s Aintree winners

Tiger Roll did win back-to-back Nationals in 2018 and 2019, and was deprived of a hat-trick attempt by the pandemic but, super horse though he was, he was competing in a race that cannot be compared to the supreme test of jumping that it was in the 1970s. While Red Rum has to be the greatest Aintree horse of all time, he wasn’t only good at Liverpool. Aside from his Scottish National win, one of his best performances over conventional fences came at Newbury in 1973 when he was only beaten a shorthead in the Hennessy, giving the winner a stone.

And don’t forget, too, how often Red Rum raced. One reason National Hunt stars of that era had such a following was because they ran far more often than their counterparts today, when the best horses are wrapped in cotton wool ahead of the now all-important Cheltenham Festival. In a career stretching over 11 years, Red Rum ran 110 times. That’s 10 outings a year. He captured the imagination of the nation not just because of what he did but because we all saw him do it on the BBC, and the national broadcaster was proud to screen such a spectacle. Perhaps the enduring appeal of Red Rum is that he reminds us of a golden era for the sport; one that deep down we all miss and would love to come back.

Neil Clark is the author of Champion Jump Horse Racing Jockeys From 1945 to Present Day (£14.99, White Owl Books).