It's 40 years since Red Rum won his record third Grand National. Marcus Armytage, himself a former winner of the race, looks back at how it happened and explains why we'll never see his like again.
If the past half-century tells us anything about years ending in a seven, we should hold on to our hats when the runners line up for Saturday’s Randox Health Grand National at Aintree, because something extraordinary might happen.
There may have been nothing untoward about Silver Birch’s 2007 victory, apart from the fact that his trainer Gordon Elliott hadn’t even produced a winner in his native Ireland and is now, a decade later, poised to win his first Irish trainers’ championship.
20 years ago there was a genuinely extraordinary moment: the ‘Bomb Scare National’. Then, in a feat of logistics rarely seen in peacetime Britain, the racecourse was evacuated into Liverpool and the race rearranged for two days later, when the Monday National was won by Lord Gyllene.
1997 also marked Sir Peter O’Sullevan’s 50th and final Grand National as commentator and the current champion jockey Richard Johnson’s first ride in the race (he was unseated at the 15th fence). 20 years on, Johnson is still looking for his first victory, but wherever he finishes on Saturday, he will set a record for the most rides (21).
1987 saw another interesting quirk, although I concede that it’s not really of historic significance. I will remember Maori Venture’s National victory 30 years ago for nonagenarian owner Jim Joel more than most because I was having my first, and what I then assumed would be my only, ride in the race on a 200–1 outsider, Brown Veil.
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10 years before that, however, and exactly 40 years ago there came a moment of genuine sporting legend: Red Rum’s third victory in the Grand National.
Red Rum’s first step towards transcending racing
Earlier that year, as an impressionable eight year old, I paid my first visit to Aintree with my father, who had two runners. I stood behind the champion trainer Fred Winter on the County Stand because he was the only person I had any chance of seeing over.
We watched his gallant horse Crisp, 30 lengths clear at the last as he had been most of the way, nabbed on the line by Red Rum and Fletcher, who was to become the most successful post-Second World War National jockey. If a desire to win the race ever needed feeding, then it was to be on that stand that day, but what ‘Rummy’ went on to achieve made Crisp’s feat under 12st even more Herculean in hindsight.
At the time, I and many others thought Winter would be back to win other Nationals and that it would be Red Rum’s trainer ‘Ginger’ McCain’s day in the sun, but the second-hand car salesman from Southport, who galloped his horses up the sands, became Aintree royalty. The country loves nothing more than a horse that can take Becher’s Brook, the Canal Turn, Valentine’s, The Chair and even the little fence now known as Foinavon in their unbroken stride – and he trained it.
1974-1977: Domination and ultimate glory for McCain & Red Rum
The larger-than-life McCain and his horse became National treasures, winning it again in 1974, finishing second in 1975 and 1976.
It was a year later, and now forty years ago, that Red Rum became the greatest National horse of all time, transcending his sport and earning his place in the nation’s collective heart. He became the first and only horse since the race was first run in 1839 to win it for a third time.
Among the field in 1977 was 21-year-old Charlotte Brew the first woman to ride in the Grand NationalIn the same year, 21-year-old Charlotte Brew attracted enormous publicity as the first woman to ride in the race (she got as far as four from home when Barony Fort refused).
By the end of the race, nobody was thinking about Brew any more. Red Rum had, at the age of 12, been written off before the race as too old to contend once again, particularly given his mediocre season so far.
After the first circuit, with 19 horses having dropped out already, Boom Docker had a huge lead – the largest ever after an opening circuit of the National – but refused to jump the 17th.
At Becher’s Brook – the 22nd hurdle – Red Rum took the lead, and never looked back as he raced to his record third triumph to the utter delight of the Aintree crowd.
“The crowd are willing him home now. The 12-year-old Red Rum, being preceded only by loose horses, being chased by Churchtown Boy… They’re coming to the elbow, just a furlong now between Red Rum and his third Grand National triumph! He gets a tremendous reception, you’ve never heard one like it at Liverpool… and Red Rum wins the National!” – Sir Peter O’Sullevan’s commentary on the final stretch of the 1977 Grand National
When Red Rum died, aged 30 in 1995 – and was buried by the winning post early one morning before Liverpool had woken and before a man from the Ministry had a chance to invoke the rules forbidding livestock burial – it was front-page news; he’s still the nation’s favourite racehorse.
Why there will never be another like the horse that saved the Grand National
Rummy had inspired the requisite fundraising to enable the Jockey Club to buy the course in 1984, ensuring the race’s future for further Red Rums.
But while there’s always a chance of a loose horse into doing something calamitous – former champion jockey A. P. McCoy was twice carried out by loose horses when in with a winning chance – there will never be another triple-winning horse.
Horses and jockeys that will continue to be inspired to up their game over those big green spruce fences. However, the modern National is a deeper race than it once was – on Saturday, all 40 slots in the handicap will be filled, not just a dozen like there were in Red Rum’s day, which means there are many more horses in with a chance of winning.
Perversely, the biggest obstacle to a horse gaining immortality is the undoubtedly easier course introduced three years ago.
This means that horses can make mistakes that they would never have got away with in Red Rum’s day – his almost cat-like athleticism and sixth sense of avoiding trouble were what made him the ultimate Aintree specialist.
Marcus Armytage is racing correspondent for the ‘Daily Telegraph’. He is the last amateur jockey to win the Grand National, which he did in 1990 on Mr Frisk – their time of eight minutes, 47 seconds is still a record.
Grand National 2017: ones to watch
The handicapper says he’s 10lb well-in after impressively winning the Grimthorpe Chase for Irish trainer Brian Ellison after the National weights had been published. Red is definitely the colour, as many people in Liverpool will tell you – think of Red Rum, Red Alligator and Red Marauder (2001). Silver (Birch and Nicolaus, 1961) is the only other colour to get a look in.
Vieux Lion Rouge
Red again. Already a winner (of the Becher Chase) over the Aintree fences for Somerset trainer David Pipe, he was sixth a year ago aged seven and is likely to start favourite after winning Hay-dock’s National trial. If he wins, another Scudamore (jockey Tom) will be added to the honours board 57 years after his grandfather Michael won on Oxo.
One for Arthur
And one for Scotland? Sure to be supported by Arthurs and punters north of the border, he has a sound jumping record. He’s trained near Kinross in Tayside by Lucinda Russell, partner of former champion jockey Peter Scudamore, who never won the race, and owned by two ladies who call themselves the Golf Widows for obvious reasons.
The three-day Randox Health Aintree Festival starts on April 6; the Randox Health Grand National will be run at 5.15pm on Saturday, April 8. Tickets from £27 (0344 579 3001; http://aintree.thejockeyclub.co.uk)