Portraying Red Rum: ‘ a very special horse’

 by JEREMY HOARE (photographer/cameraman and fellow travel writer)

 

Red Rum:’ He really was the greatest racehorse of the 20th century.’

WHILE working as a television cameraman for ATV, back in 1974, I attended a technical rehearsal of ‘Edward VII’ an ITV primetime drama series starring Timothy West, Robert Hardy and Annette Crosbie.

During a break, I chatted to actor Peter Howells, an enthusiastic and knowledgeable racing man; he was convinced that Red Rum would win his second Grand National at Aintree that afternoon. I nodded but kept my wallet in my pocket.

That afternoon, my equestrian artist wife Gillian and I watched Red Rum romp to victory in the Grand National for the second time.

Along with the millions of others willing the racehorse on, we cheered as he crossed the line – but we took our enthusiasm many steps further.

In her excitement at another Red Rum win, Gillian did a pen-and-ink drawing that same day of the racehorse and jockey Brian Fletcher coming over the last fence at Aintree. The next day I packed off the drawing in the Sunday post (there was one then) to Horse & Hound magazine. We hoped it would appear as a small reproduction but were delighted when the magazine featured it as a full page on the inside back cover. This unexpected success marked a huge boost to Gillian’s career as an equestrian artist. Commissions started coming in as this single drawing proved a turning point in her career.

Red Rum and Brian Fletcher clearing the last jump to win the 1974 Grand National at Aintree

Many doors that had previously been firmly closed began to open. Following the publication of the drawing, I was quick off the mark in contacting Red Rum’s trainer, Donald ‘Ginger’ McCain, who agreed I could photograph, and Gillian watch, the horse out training on the beach at Southport.

Merseyside born and bred, Ginger McCain was a plain-speaking character who had transformed himself from sometime cab-driver and second-hand car salesman into one of the finest racehorse trainers of all time.

In the course of doing so, he helped develop Red Rum into a legendary champion. He and Red Rum remained a remarkable team until the end. The trainer bought the bay in 1972 for octogenarian owner Noel le Mare as an unfancied gelding and turned him into a magnificent winner who ultimately achieved three Grand National wins; 1973, 1974 and 1977 and two seconds in 1975 and 1976.

Ginger proved most welcoming and, on the first of our visits, we went out in the early morning on Southport beach, with Red Rum posed for me by his stable lad, Billy Ellison. I’d taken posed photos of many other horses but with Rummy it felt a real privilege to be trusted with such a star.

McCain had exercised his newly acquired racehorse on the sands of Southport beach from when he first got the horse and, importantly, let him frolic in the surf too at the end of training.

Red Rum had pedal osteitis in his left front hoof, caused by the pedal bone in the foot being inflamed or bruised. This was cured by the salt water and. as McCain said:   ‘ It had taken me years to realise that I had the best natural all-weather gallop and the best swimming pool.’

On our two visits in 1974, I noticed the curious contrast between the racehorse’s star appeal and his relatively humble surroundings. The yard was behind the second-hand car showrooms that represented Ginger McCain’s other business. Here, Rummy was posed once again. I sensed the intelligence emanating from the racehorse, it was obvious to all who knew him, and the reason he was so successful.

In May we spent time with Rummy on his summer break, with Ginger McCain escorting us to the racehorse’s secret location, deep in the Lancashire countryside. He then left us to pose and play with him in peace.

Playtime for a champion

In many ways, Rummy was just like any other horse enjoying his summer break. He had his donkey friend, Andy, and some cows for company. They all got on well. We played around with him – he was very friendly, liked people and seemed to enjoy the attention. Yet I always come back to the racehorse’s innate intelligence.

In the field, at one point I was just patting him on the neck, when his head shot up and he fixed his gaze on something in the distance. I followed his line of sight to see a car going along a road, maybe half a mile away. That was Red Rum’s ace card, his awareness of his surroundings and a keen analytical intelligence that was far greater than anything I have ever seen in a horse, before or since.

Gillian and I went to Kempton Park in October 1974 to see Red Rum race in the Charisma Records Handicap Chase. Jockey Brian Fletcher, who partnered Red Rum in the first two of his Grand National triumphs, was in the saddle.

When Gillian asked the jockey whether he would win, Fletcher replied: ‘ Not today. You can hop on behind me if you like!” This throwaway comment was overheard by Ginger McCain and probably added to the reasons for Brian being replaced as jockey. In future races, Rummy was ridden by Tommy Stack. On this occasion, Brian was right and Rummy was unplaced, much to everyone’s dismay…

Even so, Brian Fletcher will be remembered for Red Rum’s first Grand National victory in 1973 when the pair reeled in the long-time leader, Crisp, in the final 100 yards, having had around 20 lengths to make up at the final fence.

Red Rum –the Paintings, the Record and Sculpture

As his fame grew, the legendary racehorse was swiftly immortalised in print, in oils, in sculpture, in photography and in music.

Jeremy with the living legend that is Red Rum

Naturally, Gillian was responsible for some of the art, producing an oil painting commissioned for the cover of Ivor Herbert’s book on Red Rum by publishers Mitchell Beazley. Afterwards, it was bought by Mike Burns, the grandson of Red Rum’s owner, Noel Le Mare.

It was probably because I was steeped in showbiz that I came up with the idea of a Red Rum record.

In 1975, I put the idea to some friends of mine at ATV and a few weeks later they asked me to listen to the demo they’d made. I thought it was good, so phoned the only person I knew in the record industry and a week later we were in the Polydor studios off Oxford Street recording it. As Red Rum came second that year, the record didn’t become a No.1 but was still played a lot on radio.

Gillian produced another Red Rum painting which was commissioned by Ginger McCain and after the third historic win in 1977, created an oil painting bought by Tommy Stack, the jockey who rode Red Rum into the history books. Though Tommy Stack complained I was talking ‘telephone numbers’ when doing the deal, we eventually settled on a price so it ended amicably enough. Gillian went on to create a small bronze sculpture of Red Rum which we sold successfully as a limited edition.

Burnishing the Legend

The horse, like his trainer Ginger McCain, thrived on the heady atmosphere of Grand National day. As the colourful trainer said: ‘ The Grand National is like a river running through my life.’ According to McCain, the racehorse shared his feelings: ‘ Red Rum loved Aintree, and revelled in the challenge, and was a complete professional, a great character, and, it may seem silly to say it, but he was a horse with a great charisma, like I have never seen in any other horse.’

Looking back over 40 years, and reflecting on the enriching experience, I realise even more what a privilege it was to get to know the legend that was Red Rum and the people behind his success – Ginger McCain, Brian Fletcher, Billy Ellison and Tommy Stack. Our personal story of Red Rum started with a drawing, continued with my photographs and ended with a painting. He really was the greatest racehorse of the 20th century. ©

Red Rum Private View at Osborne Studio Gallery on 10 April 2018. Jeremy, left, pictured with John Ruler

 

The images taken from Jeremy’s book are some of those taken on his two memorable visits to Southport and also feature those of Red Rum racing at Kempton Park, all in 1974. There are numerous very well-known images of Red Rum but the ones in this book are more of an unseen, behind-the-scenes viewpoint, most of which have never been published before. See: www.jeremyhoare.com/red-rum