30 March 2008
Some horses win the Grand National by mistake. Red Rum started by landing a five-furlong selling plate as a two-year-old, Foinavon scored only because he was far enough behind to skirt round the famous 23rd-fence pile-up. But for Cloudy Lane, this year’s favourite, the race seems set in something more than the stars. It is as if whole families, as well as the fates, have combined.
For a start he represents his owner’s dream from before the cradle – Cloudy Lane’s cradle that is.
Trevor Hemmings may have been born close to where his father worked at Woolwich Arsenal back in 1939 but it was from Chorley, Lancashire, that he set off to make his fortune with a single builder’s wagon. It was there that his original affection for horses developed into an obsession with the local fiesta that has become the global event called the Grand National. And it was at his Gleadhill Stud in Chorley that he put together Cloudy Lane’s sire, Cloudings, and dam, Celtic Cygnet, in 1999.
Hemmings had bought Celtic Cygnet from former England cricketer, David Brown, before getting Cloudings from Sheikh Mohammed. The big grey Prix Lupin winner ended his career by running a poor 10th of 13 for Chantilly maestro Andre Fabre in the Benny The Dip Derby of 1997. While the four-legged result of this matchmaking was both small and hot-tempered as a youngster, his career has been in the hands of two of the most famous family names in jump racing and Grand National history: McCain and Maguire.
Cloudy Lane’s rider is Jason Maguire, whose uncle Adrian was one of the greatest jockeys never to win a championship or Grand National, most famously scoring no less than 194 victories in the 1993-94 season, only to be edged out by Richard Dunwoody who, on Miinnehoma in that same year, overtook Adrian and Moorcroft Boy only on the infamous 347-yard Aintree run-in.
Cloudy Lane’s trainer has an even deeper heritage. Donald McCain, 37, was two years old when his father, Ginger, saddled Red Rum to the first of his three Grand National triumphs, after galloping him on the beach close to the stables behind his second-hand car showroom.
By 2004, when Ginger rewrote the record books by saddling Amberleigh House to take the National yet again, ‘Young Donald’ was the central dynamic of the family’s swish new stable in Cholmondeley, Cheshire, and himself made the running at Aintree as a lanky rider in 1996.
Last year was Donald’s first season as a trainer. He had great success and saddled Cloudy Lane to win at Cheltenham. He has done even better this year and Cloudy Lane has won his past three races with increasing elan. You can see why it looks as if Aintree victory is written in the stars. The trouble is that for a long time Cloudy Lane looked a long way from the real thing.
“He was really quite small and not very impressive,” said Mick Meagher, a central figure in the Hemmings equine empire which now stretches to studs in Ireland and the Isle of Man as well as Cloudy Lane’s birthplace at Chorley and the small matter of 77 horses who have already run in the famous green and white this season. “In fact he was pretty sharp to ride,” Mick continued. “He gave me a right fall when I made the mistake of answering my mobile when I was on him as an early four-year-old. The McCains have done a great job in settling him down.”
The road to the knacker’s yard is paved with hot-headed horses who fall into heedless hands. “I remember him as fairly spooky,” says 27-year-old Jason Maguire who, like his uncle Adrian, was a pony-racing star in Ireland. “But he has settled down a lot now. And because he is small and alert he is a very, very accurate jumper.
“Aintree will be strange to him and he will be really looking where he is going.”
The McCain operation in gorgeous countryside is a far cry from the gloriously eccentric outfit where, on one unforgettable morning in 1974, I thundered along the Southport sands with Red Rum powering beneath me.
“Yes, Cloudy Lane was quite keen when he came to us,” says Donald, about the very first horse sent to the stable by Hemmings. “But this place is so quiet and the gallop so good that it settles everything down.”
“We still run Cloudy Lane in a cross noseband [for extra restraint] but he settles and wants to please,” adds the young trainer. “Some people think he will not stay because he didn’t get home in desperate ground at Haydock last season, but things were not right for him that day. This time the programme has been perfect and anyway the horse has delivered ever since he joined us four years ago, in his bumper, novice hurdle, novice chase, and he won at Haydock and Cheltenham.”
“Mind you, Aintree is what Trevor really lives for,” Donald says, before concluding in a faraway tone, “for all this to come together seems almost too good to be true.” McCain Jnr may have put on several stone since he somehow stripped at 9st 11lb for the 1996 National, but none of the extra heft has gone to his head. Cloudy Lane will carry millions of punters’ pounds next Saturday. However, it will be heritage that weighs heaviest, and most glorious of all.