No race writes your name deeper in history than the Grand National. No name has taken more glory than that of Donald McCain. Four times it was the father, and now as Jason Maguire and Ballabriggs stretched gaspingly for the line, it was the day of Donald the sun.
The history books have their place but nobody should ever doubt the depths that man and horse have to dig. On a warm, dehydrating afternoon Ballabriggs had been up in the front from the start and wonderfully though he jumped the only guarantee as he led the pack across the final Melling Road with two fences to jump was that he would be utterly spent by the utterly finishing post.
A year ago, over three and a quarter miles at Cheltenham he weakened so dramatically on the run in that he almost failed to last home. Here he was already three quarter of a mile further in and four horses, Oscar Time, Big Fella Thanks, Niche Market and Don’t Push It still with him whose riders would also know how deep he would be in oxygen debt. But Donald McCain had spurned his father Ginger’s advice and agreed with Jason Maguire they would let their giant runner use his massive stride and jumping power to put the others to the sword.
Ballabriggs is huge. He stands a full 17.1 hands (five foot nine inches) at the shoulder that’s a size bigger than Red Rum and some six inches taller than Ginger’s other National winner Amberleigh House. Horse like him need to keep up a rolling rhythm. They must meet the last two fences clean and come straight up the run in or fatigue can suddenly reduce them to the wandering, drunken wreck so ultimately pictured by the giant Crisp as he was cruelly cut down in the dying strides by Red Rum’s first surge towards immortality in 1973. Coming into and over the second last Maguire kept Ballabriggs galloping straight and true.
Outside him and behind him other history was trying to write its name. Amateur Sam Waley Cohen was trying to trump his King George and Gold Cup success on Long Run with a Grand National on Oscar Time. Graham Lee was driving Big Fella Thanks to try and stop the McCain family adding another victory to the one he had shared on Amberleigh House. Young Harry Skelton had already won an Irish Grand National on Niche Market, victory here would make him even more famous than his father Nick Skelton, the show jumping ace. And outside them were McCoy and Don’t Push IT, victorious last year and hungry again.
But there was still appetite behind the big white noseband on Ballabriggs’ head. Big Fella Thanks and Niche Market now had no bite in their stride and McCoy was having to spend all the energy he had saved. Oscar Time looked the threat. He jumped the last behind Ballabriggs which meant he would have a tow as Jason Maguire rowed the great horse beneath him all the way to the elbow which joins the white running rail on the outside of the chair with another 150 ever extending yards to the winning post.
This is where National after National is lost. The leader gets to the rail but that pitiless straight stretch of grass and the great waves of sound crashing off the stand suck him back and give the pursuer heart. Remember that in 1956 Devon Loch had got level with the water jump, less than 50 yards from the line, before his astonishing collapse and Dick Francis’ first taste of mystery fame. Sam Waley Cohen may be an amateur but his fitness has been hardened by boxing sessions with a world title belt. He pulled Oscar Time out and asked the hardest question. How deep could either horse dig.
You should look at the forelegs. When tiredness has got them, the stride shortens into a scratchy parody of earlier rolling power. Ballabriggs was still rolling, Oscar Time got to a couple of lengths but horse and man were not for passing. Jason Maguire had never been closer than 6th in 9 Grand National rides, his brilliant uncle Adrian Maguire only managed a 3rd. Ballabriggs would write him into history but he would do it by giving his all.
Afterwards with the water and the oxygen you could see, as with a human marathon runner quite what an effort it had been, how different a creature Ballabriggs was now to the blooming wonder in the paddock with the rose of Lancashire stencilled into the gleam of his hindquarters. “He will be fine,” said Donald McCain emptying another bucket over the horse he has long believed in and with whom he delivered a finely crafted plan of pointing all season to this day of days.
A week ago Donald stood at the top of his gallop in Cheshire with the Cholmondeley Castle backdrop very different from the windswept saltiness of Southport Sands where his father trained Red Rum from that little yard at the back of his second hand car showroom. “Look at him,” he said as Ballabriggs strode magnificently past us, “he is a living dream.”