A magnificent horse wings up the gallop and a man’s face lightens up with something more than sunshine. That’s what Spring can carry with it in the week before the Grand National. Especially if your name is Donald McCain and the beast is a monster called Ballabriggs.
Let’s start with the horse and so avoid immediately repeating the endless comparisons between McCain father and son trotted out for the last three Nationals as Donald has each time saddled the fancied Cloudy Lane in vain pursuit of adding a victory of his own to the four already won by that 80 year old scion of political incorrectness that is Ginger McCain. Besides Ballabriggs is both a real contender and a fascinating physical contrast to both Amberleigh House (2004) and to the incredible Red Rum who stormed to immortality in 1973, 74 and 77.
While Amberleigh House (and to a great extent Cloudy Lane) was a little round horse barely 15-2 (5ft2ins) at the shoulder and Red Rum was an elegant ex-flat racer standing all of 16-2, Ballabriggs is a whole size larger again, a classic old fashioned jumper from his big broad head down to the strong round hooves that have already pounded him ahead in two of his three races this season. Little wonder that whilst Red Rum’s first race was as a two year old, (deadheating over 5 furlongs at Liverpool exactly 44 years ago on Thursday) Ballabriggs did not make it on to a racetrack until he finished 5th in a two mile bumper at Uttoxeter as a five year old in May 2006.
“Go and stand beside him and you will see just how big he is,” says Donald and there is a real tactile pleasure in reaching high up the great arc of muscle that is Ballabriggs’ neck and then running the fingers down and across his massive shoulders. This is the sort of thrilling brute that jumping people yearn for, and through whose ears jockeys young and old fantasize those first six iconic Aintree fences stretching down to Bechers as the Grand National field streams across the Melling Road.
As Ballabriggs then hacked back down to the end of the five furlong wood chip gallop with its views of rural Cheshire dipping away from us, it would have been but 40 miles as the crow flies from the privileged parkland of this ancient Cholmondeley Estate to the mean streets and cheery windswept saltiness of Southport and its sands where Red Rum went out to do his exercise. But that was Donald’s boyhood. He’s 40 now. He should train a hundred winners this season. His Dad did not win a National until he was 42. This splendid bay coming back up the woodchip alongside Champion Hurdle second Peddlers Cross could get him there first.
“He was always very much the chasing type,” explains Donald a tall, greying, quietly spoken figure “which is why he had less than a year over hurdles. Then while he showed plenty of promise in his first season over fences, he ricked a ligament in his back at the start of the next and missed a whole year until the beginning of last season.”
It was Ballabriggs three wins that term, culminating in the Kim Muir at the Cheltenham Festival, which put him into everyone’s short list for the 2011 National, and which then saw his trainer adapt the adroit strategy of running his chasing hope just twice over hurdles this season(and winning both times) so that the ‘chasing handicapper could not raise his weight for Aintree. Some disappointment was then expressed when an eventual warm up over fences saw a narrow odds-on defeat at Kelso, but the trainer is having none of it.
“I was absolutely delighted with him,” says Donald McCain, “it was only two and a half miles, he was in front for the last half mile and was running on strongly when he was passed on the run-in. It doesn’t bother me at all but it beats me how they can ease our horse in the betting for being second in a listed race and shorten Gordon Elliot’s horse (Backstage) for winning a point to point. Everything in the National ought to be able to win a point to point.”
Some trainers, even dare we say it McCain Snr on occasion, get themselves upset by such perceived injustice, but Donald is not like that. “When he left his first school,” said Ginger later by way of explanation, “his assistant headmaster took me to one side and said he would always get on because he had a nice way with him.” Donald shrugs off such compliments although Ginger adds that when his son was asked how he now had over 100 horses in training while his father never managed much more than 30, Donald had said “by not telling any of my owners to stick his horse up his ****.”
Considering the proprietors of the animals circling in front of us on Thursday morning included captains of industry and David Moyes, the Everton football manager, forswearing such anatomical challenges would certainly seem the sensible option. Ballabriggs carries the green and white silks of Cloudy Lane’s owner Trevor Hemmings whose decision to keep “Cloudy” with the McCain’s when the licence finally changed hands in 2006 was something which Donald credits as an important part of the stable’s recent growing process.
“We actually came here in 1990,” he explains, “but it was Amberleigh House winning the National that made people look up, and new owners think of coming in and begin to spend a bit more money. John Glews (CEO of recruitment firm Proactive) was important because he also became our sponsor and then a couple of years ago Tim Leslie came on board and for the first time Dad and I went to a sale and took home the two horses that we most liked of the whole lot. We didn’t pay a fortune but it was a lot different from just paying less than ten grand which had been our usual budget. Luckily they both turned out all right.”
The two horses were Tara Royal who cost 70,000 guineas, has already won three races and only missed Cheltenham through injury, and Peddlers Cross who while costing 100,000gns at that April Sale has already won £257,000 back and that Champion Hurdle second to Hurricane Fly is his only defeat in 8 outings. “Some of his work up here is so good,” says Donald, “that it is frightening. He runs at Aintree and the really exciting thing is that he is likely to prove even better over further and over fences. He just could be a freak.”
Cholmondeley Castle was built in 1804 and still towers grandly over its lakes and gardens at the head of its 4,000 acre estate, but the news that the McCain’s 200 acre Bankhouse establishment is near the centre of it should not make you think that they have swapped the second hand car show room (behind which Red Rum was trained) for the stately home business. Instead there is a real sense of pragmatic earthiness in what they have done with what, remember is a rented operation, not a bought one.
The main boxes are all converted from a red brick cowbarns, Donald’s own home, was a garage before Ginger got working on it, and whilst their overflow yard in the grandly named Castle Stables was where George Owen trained the 1949 Grand National winner Russian Hero and had Dick Francis as his stable jockey, it has to be shared with a herd of pigs across the courtyard. “We can’t afford to waste money on cosmetics,” says Donald quietly, “we just like to get the job done.”
Outsiders will assure you that it is very much Donald who has been taking the final decisions which has seen his seasonal total rise from 40 on his opening term to 93 and counting just four years on. Yet the use of the “we” is not just false modesty. “Things have just evolved naturally,” says Donald who did spells working for Luca Cumani and Oliver Sherwood as well as riding over 40 winners over fences and getting round in the National on a horse trained by his father and led up by his sister Joanne. “By the time of Amberleigh House I was doing most of the training and we have just worked with what we have got. Of course it’s not all down to luck but having to work with much cheaper horses for years didn’t do us any harm.”
Once we get back to the kitchen the sense of collective, if not of quiet, is almost overwhelming. While mother Beryl both cooks the breakfast and answers the phone, sister Joanne logs the entries and Ginger McCain, quite chipper again after a Christmas health scare, sits mock-curmudgeonly on the sofa and tries to dismiss as “soft” the new Golden Wedding cards on the mantelpiece.
“I would hate his job,” he said looking across at his son, “walking around with the phone clapped to his ear and having to listen to owners talking garbage. Everyone says he gets on well with the staff but he just overlooks things, lads wouldn’t have a clue about how to “strap” a horse like the old days but ours still look really good in the paddock. He makes a liar out of me all the time – and it’s so frustrating.”
Far from goading his father on Donald tries to think back to Southport days and wonders just how his parents coped with the media pressure. Red Rum was the BBC’s chosen Grand National horse to follow before that first 1974 triumph and for each of the five years after that the Upper Aughton yard became the most famous stable since Bethlehem. “There used to be cables and cameras everywhere,” remembers Beryl, “and ‘Red’s’ box was just outside the kitchen window. I don’t know how we did it but actually we did have a lot of fun.”
Having once shared it to the extent of galloping Red Rum along the beach one soaking November morning in 1975, I can say ‘amen’ to that while at the same time treasuring the success that all those years of graft have finally brought them. It is no exaggeration to say that without Red Rum the Grand National might not have even made it into this century and yet by the time it did the McCain annual winner total had yet to exceed fifteen. What’s happening now under Donald Jnr is the racing fates’ payback for something priceless.
“But there’s no doubt he is a fine trainer,” said Ballabriggs rider Jason Maguire on Friday in a voice that is the audio ringer of A.P. McCoy. “He is very calm and is absolutely open about everything. It makes him a very good man to ride for and I am hoping this horse will do what we believe he can d.” Maguire had the first of his ten Grand National rides in 2001, and in 2007 turned down the chance to ride the winner Silver Birch to ride the subsequent McCain faller Idle Talk. The nephew of Adrian Maguire and turning 30 the week after the National, Jason is as sound an analyst as you can find in the saddle. In Ballabriggs he is well aware he is pitching for immortality.
“Of course you never know how they are going to take to it until they get there,” he starts cautiously, “and you can never be sure if they will actually stay out the trip until they have done it. But just about everything about this horse would seem to fit the bill. He has a lovely easy gallop in him and you would have to think that if he got into a good rhythm with his jumping, it would really hep him to get the trip. I was delighted with him at Kelso and I would not swop my ride for anything.”
Ballabriggs was bought as a yearling for Trevor Hemmings by his racing manager Michael Meagher for what now looks a very reasonable E32,000 and was allowed to develop in his own time first at his owner’s Monymusk Stud in Ireland and then with Meagher himself at Gleadhill in Lancashire. “He was a huge big chap,” remembers Michael, “he was not broken in Ireland until he was three and then we fiddled around with him here and he didn’t go into training until he was a late four year old. What we are hoping is that the patience has paid off.”
Meagher has been around a long time if not as long as the ubiquitous Trevor for whom Ballabriggs will be a 26th Grand National runner and for whom Hedgehunter fulfilled a lifelong dream with Aintree victory in 2005. So Michael is too seasoned an observer not to admit that the doubts in Ballabriggs record are not his two falls, one slipped up on a bend at Bangor, the other slipping into the first at Leicester, and certainly not that Kelso defeat last time. The doubt has to be how Ballabriggs is going to last out the full four and a half miles of the Grand National next week after only just getting home over three and a quarter miles at Cheltenham last year.
“He was empty all right that day,” admits Michael, “but they had gone a great gallop and he had been in front for quite a while. But he is a horse who travels very easily through a race and jumps very well. All that should help him at Aintree. He does his best work on the bridle and has just one finishing kick. It will be difficult but he is in good hands and the jockey believes in him. Always did.”
In fact it was on January 8th 2008 that Jason Maguire first put his voice on the line. The seven year old Ballabriggs had just stayed on to be a five length second in a moderate novice chase at Catterick to earn a rating some 40 pounds below his current one. On dismounting Jason said that this was the sort of horse that could win the National one day. “I looked at him as if he was crackers,” remembers Micheal Meagher. “But now I am not so sure.”