Even on the wettest of Southport mornings – of which there are plenty – Ginger McCain will always glow in the memory. He certainly did as Red Rum pulled out and the rain drilled down in that November gloom. “You had better ride him, cock,” he said.
That was typical Ginger – challenging, generous, unorthodox, and determined that everyone should live life every day. At that stage in 1975 Red Rum was already the most famous horse in the world, having already won the Grand National twice and been second that April giving weight to the dual Gold Cup winner L’Escargot. I was a 4 years retired jock who hadn’t ridden for a while. “Do you think he should?” asked Beryl, as ever the sensible foil to her husband’s excesses. “Of course,” said Ginger, “he’s a man. He would love it.”
So the die was cast. Ginger was chronically incapable of backing off a challenge whether it was his famous story of taking a lion from Southport to London Zoo in the back of his taxi “I could see him licking his lips in the driving mirror,” to the unlikeliest of all Grand National winning training routines. Which is where we were headed that morning. Even now it is hard to believe it.
By November 1975 we should have all been familiar enough with Ginger and Beryl and Red Rum and the little yard set behind McCain’s Car Sales in the Upper Aughton Road opposite the Chinese fish and chip shop and fifty yards along from the railway crossing. With great percipience the BBC had elected to follow Red Rum’s preparation for the 1973 Grand National and every year since the only wonder was that more horses and people did not fall over the TV cables stretching from the broadcasting vans. Everyone chuckled as Ginger did his turn beefing up Aintree and scorning “antis and do gooders” but they imagined that he was putting on a bit of an act for the cameras. The reality was even better. In almost every sense you just could not make it up.
For Ginger actually lived his impossible dream. That he could win the National from the back of the car show room with the Southport beach for gallops seems almost laughably unlikely now let alone then. And even at dinner on the eve of the first Grand National in 1973, Ron Barry and Tommy Stack who had been part of Red Rum’s five race winning sequence before that Christmas, both suggested that the horse might be a bit too “clever” for Aintree. Ginger would not have it, and forever after reminded us that he was right.
Faint hearts, and in his eyes that applied to the great majority, were there to be hardened not appeased. So what if on that soaking morning the most famous horse in the world was bucking his way across the road to the horror of its rider not to mention oncoming traffic? It was only when Red Rum literally shadow boxed at a passing milk float that it was clear that the old horse was merely having fun and that I, in one of Ginger’s favourite phrases, “was just getting soft.”
The reason we all loved to write jokingly about him was to avoid the leg pulling insults, “crawling, smarmy bastards” if we ever began to get serious about the debt we owed him and Beryl for what they did for Aintree. The phrase “you just could not make it up” does not only apply to Red Rum. Ginger and Beryl were open house to all comers and were prepared to do things beyond a PR man’s wildest imaginings. Forget about me riding Red Rum, news reading superstar Angela Rippon, no less, was also loaded into the saddle albeit a little later and only for a paddle in the sea.
Back in 1975 it was soon clear that rather more than a paddle was on the agenda. The McCain string – at this stage “first lot” would be no more than seven or eight – circled on the edge of the beach and the trainer shouted some instructions which were soon lost in the driving rain. The one great redeeming feature of Ginger was that he did not seem to be worried about the situation. Pity the same could not be said for the now sodden hack setting off into the mist in the general direction of Liverpool.
To try and ensure that this memory was not fanciful I retraced my steps in the July of 2008 whilst covering the Open Golf at Birkdale and it all came flooding back. A freshly cleaned white Mercedes (“only 23,000 miles”) stood in front of the showroom and while the yard at the back was weed infested from disuse, the railway crossing was still there as was the road to the beach even if the dunes, much to Ginger’s snorting derision, had been railed off and designated as a “Nature Reserve”. But the sands stretched off southwards in all their untamed glory. Except on that golfing afternoon you could see all the way to the horizon. When Ginger set us off that morning we couldn’t even see the horses in front of us.
Beside me was a mop haired lad whose idea of applying the brakes was to coil his body back into the sort of parachute we used to see emerging from the tail of space shuttles as they landed. Beneath me Red Rum had begun like an old lag that had done it all before but as the furlongs gathered so did the increasing tug on the slippery rein. Ahead of us lay drumming sand and ever spiralling doubt. Red Rum may have already jumped Bechers six times without a stumble but what would he (don’t mention me) do if suddenly faced with a breakwater?
As the pace increased so too did the dilemma. The guy beside me looked as if his brakes were failing, and if I moved my aching and out of practice hands my brakes would too. How much further was there to go? Where was Ginger? What, beyond this living nightmare, could lie ahead? Then, at the absolute moment of rein-slipping crisis, from in the mist, hardly ten yards to the side of us, came the honk of a car horn. It was Ginger in his Land Rover shouting something which came crazily through the murk. It was “Let him stride on a bit cock.”
Red Rum heard it too. If there had been brakes they would have snapped. For about ten alarming seconds the living legend laid legs to the ground and ran into the fog as if he was still the speedster that had won at Aintree first time out as a two year old. Then instantly he cut the engine and in moment we could see the other horses pulling up ahead. Red Rum knew what he was doing. So did Ginger. He got out of the car with a beam about him and said” He will have enjoyed that cock.”
That will always be the outstanding memory of Ginger but there were many, many more as he continued his uncompromising way in support of Aintree and of all things that he could prevent “do gooders” getting their hands on. The very last was the sweetest. It was the week before Ballabriggs was due to gallop to more family glory in this year’s Grand National and Ginger was at his curmudgeonly best as he grumbled his way through breakfast and despaired of the younger generation.
Next to the kitchen was the office with a lengthy three part desk along which sat Beryl, Joanne and Donald inputting to McCain Junior’s operation which that month was to climb to the unprecedented double of 100 winners and over a £I million for the season. For all the chaffing they looked back up at their husband and father with undisguised affection as he did in return. And for all his moaning about the cost of things and the problems of only renting rather than owning their Cholmondeley training grounds, outside the house was further proof that his 80 years have not been entirely wasted.
It was a gleaming new Mercedes with a RED RUM number plate on which he gazed with understandable pride. When I reminded him that it looked rather superior to the old white Peugeot he flogged me many years ago, Ginger McCain’s face crinkled up into the “live life to the full” smile which we will always treasure. He chortled a little then said “But you must have been soft, cock.”