Back when the English Grand National from Aintree found its way to American television screens, back when the famous race was called “the ultimate test of a horse’s courage,” back before hand-held phones and texting and social media and account wagering and all the other trappings of progress, there was Red Rum.
He might be the greatest steeplechaser in history. And, no, he never raced in the United States but early April is a fitting time to take a look back. The 2018 Grand National goes forward Saturday, April 14 at Aintree. It’s still a test, still a sporting event of the world, still a horse race like no other. But it’s not as good as it was when Red Rum ran in it.
His name crossed the wires at TIHR last month via an email about an exhibit of historic photos at a London art gallery. Oh how we would love to be there. Photographer Jeremy Hoare and his equine-artist wife Gillian (whose portrait of Red Rum appeared in Horse and Hound magazine) visited the great horse at trainer Ginger McCain’s yard. Jeremy Hoare, a television cameraman at the time, took still photos of Red Rum around the stable, while training, on the beach at Southport and more. All these years later, Hoare recently released a book of the photos – complete with a foreword by jockey Tommy Stack. The photography exhibit, at London’s Osborne Studio Gallery April 9-18, came next. It all brought back a lot of memories, and the photos appear as if they're from some other world and time – because they are.
“Yes, I was lucky to fool about with Rummy, but of course never fully realised just how privileged I was until much later,” Hoare wrote by email recently.
Bred in Ireland by Martyn McEnery, Red Rum failed to find much success on the flat – winning at 5 and 7 furlongs early in his career. Ultimately he found his way to McCain, who augmented his training career with jobs as a part-time taxi driver and used-car dealer. Call it magic. McCain trained the horse on the beach and let him swim or stand in the ocean to helps his hooves.
Red Rum – whose name comes from combining the last three letters in the names of his dam Mared and sire Quorum – turned to steeplechasing and the National. The race covers 4 1/2 miles and 30 fences, and brings crowded fields of 40 horses. Today, it’s worth £1 million but seemingly since its start in 1839 it’s value has been about far more than prize money. An estimated 500 million people watch the race on television, though it can be difficult to find on traditional broadcast outlets now.
Red Rum thrived at it. In 1973, he rallied from 30 lengths down to catch Crisp in the final yards and repeated the triumph the next year. He added the Scottish Grand National shortly thereafter, and is still the only horse to win both in the same season. Second in 1975 and 1976, Red Rum produced what may have been his best effort in 1977 at age 12. The feat is recognized as one of the greatest sporting (not just racing) moments in English history. He was retired after getting injured in preparations for the 1978 race, a winner of 24 races from 100 starts. He finished second 15 times, third 23 times and never fell.
The bay gelding retired to life as a celebrity. He was named the BBC Sports Personality of the Year in 1977 and wound up the subject of books, paintings, sculptures, jigsaw puzzles, a song, a fire engine, a train and more. He died in 1995 at age 30 and is buried near the finish line at Aintree. His epitaph reads:
Respect this place / this hallowed ground /
a legend here / his rest has found /
his feet would fly / our spirits soar /
he earned our love for evermore.
Hoare’s photos show a horse at work and at ease. He’s at once noble and a little bit silly or just a horse – training or posing on the beach, walking through town, rolling in a small paddock, mugging for the camera, getting ready to race, flying a fence or nipping at McCain’s pocket. The images conjure a simpler time, when a photographer could call a trainer on the phone and spend some time with the best steeplechaser in the world.
For a brief slideshow of Jeremy Hoare's images, click on the image.
For more on how to order the book, see Jeremy Hoare's website.
In honor of its 40th running this year, the Winterthur Point-to-Point steeplechase meet presents a weekly Steeplechase Throwback Thursday feature. We’ll look back on historic moments, horses and people in the jumping game – at least a few connected to the race meet on the grounds of the famed Winterthur Museum and Gardens just north of Wilmington, Del. This year’s races are Sunday, May 6. For more installments, click on the logo below or the Throwback Thursday text tag.