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FeaturePeople's Champion

Red Rum: the working-class hero who never knew when to quit

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Peter ThomasRacing Writer of the Year

To mark National Racehorse Week, this week we've been profiling your five finalists in the race to be crowned The People's Champion. In this final instalment, Peter Thomas – with the help of Racing Post readers – considers what made Red Rum so special. You can now vote for your champion here.

Recency bias is an accusation often hurled at polls like this one, mostly by old-timers with an axe to grind, but it is hard to dispute that they have a point. Yes, we all remember last week's Group 1 superstar and quite possibly last season's Gold Cup winner, but even the best horses finally fade from the memory, and the longer ago they ran the less likely we (especially those pesky, disrespectful youngsters) are to vote for them.

Red Rum, though, could be the exception to the rule. He was born in 1965 and his crowning achievement entered the record books in 1977, but he still has a following that can't be explained away by the word 'cult', and there's a chance you could mention his name to both your mother and your child and they'd both come up with more than a flicker of recognition.

In his homeland, around the Lancashire town of Southport, he's still a folk hero, alongside his trainer, the lovable, roguish used-car dealer Ginger McCain. Elsewhere in the country, I'd like to think he still stirs emotions as well.

Some, like Lee Fletcher, have gone to great lengths to ensure it's a long time before he's forgotten. "I have a tattoo of him," revealed Lee in nominating Red Rum as his People's Champion, although he's not saying where. "He was a hero to many and he brought the Grand National back to the mainstream."

That's really the point with 'Rummy': he was a mainstream kind of horse whose humble beginning as the winner of a handful of lowly races over ridiculously inadequate trips on the Flat – and the debilitating hoof condition that seemed to benefit from McCain's tactic of working him on Southport beach – made his rise to glory all the more remarkable.

He was a one-race creature – to be more accurate, one race three times – but if you're going to specialise in just one race, you might as well make it the world's most watched one and earn the adulation of 600 million people each time you win it.

Among racehorses, he was probably the most populist of all. Very few Red Rum fans were ever caught stroking their chins and quoting his data; mostly they roared him home at Aintree in April and then treated themselves to a pint or two on the winnings. Hardly any of them would have cared that he was getting lumps of weight from Crisp in 1973, or that he never even came close to winning a Gold Cup. They may have been vaguely aware that he was far from being the best steeplechaser in the land, but they knew he was the guv'nor round Aintree.

Andy Jacovou sums it up neatly: "There will be higher-class horses nominated, but Rummy was brave, foot-perfect and absolutely the people's champion in the 70s."

Foot-perfect he was, in an era, as Mick Swinn reminds us, that placed greater demands on Grand National contenders. "Three National wins and two seconds in five years, over the old trip and fences, against Gold Cup winners, plus a Scottish National and several wins on the Flat – so as far as I know he was the only horse to win over the minimum and maximum trips. What a wonderful horse he was."

Andrew Simpson has never quite got over the phenomenon that was Red Rum, and he is unlikely ever to forget him. "There's a bronze statue of him in the Wayfarers Arcade, Southport," he says, "and I've got a picture of me and my mum next to it. Thank you for giving me an opportunity to remember them both."

Red Rum with trainer Ginger McCain at his Southport yard
Red Rum with trainer Ginger McCain at his Southport yardCredit: Jeremy Hoare

As for his legacy, Rummy is widely credited, not least by Lisa Rohland, as being the horse who "single-handedly saved the Grand National" when the old race and racecourse were on their knees, but for Lisa he gave far more than that, even when his racing career was over: "He captured the hearts of the nation at public appearances. No fancy training places. No state-of-the-art stables. Just a charismatic trainer and a beautiful horse."

Red Rum's third Grand National win remains one of the most evocative pieces of TV sports footage. He'd already been beaten twice in the race when he came back for one last go as a 12-year-old, and nobody who saw him get the better of Churchtown Boy that day – those who thought he was a back number or those who never lost the faith – will ever forget it.

Having thrilled us all with two wins under Brian Fletcher, he was this time partnered by Tommy Stack, after Fletcher had allegedly annoyed McCain by declaring that the old horse, having been beaten away from Aintree, was no longer the force of old.

It didn't matter either way to Rummy, who was revitalised by the return to his old stamping ground and stormed to a 25-length success, prompting what seemed like the whole of Liverpool to join him on the track. Neither the record nor the occasion has ever been equalled.

He was not the most gifted horse we've ever seen, but he was the people's horse, a working-class hero who never knew when to quit.

PA library file dated 31/03/1973 of Red Rum ridden by jockey Brian Fletcher wins the Grand national Steeplechase at Aintree ahead of Crisp ridden by jockey Richard Pitman (right). See PA story RACING Happened Fletcher. PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo. Photo credi
The famous Grand National in which Red Rum beat Crisp (right) captured Simon Beccle's imagination in 1973Credit: PA

His 1973 win got me hooked on racing

His 1973 Grand National defeat of Crisp over an unadulterated and the hardest of courses got me, as a nine-year-old, hooked on racing. For him to run in the race four more times and to win the race twice more and finish second twice showed what a tough, consistent and honest horse he was.

Frankel, the best Flat racehorse I have seen in my lifetime, does not come close to getting in my top ten, all of whom are brave and courageous jumpers. Desert Orchid comes a distant second, so much does Red Rum stand head and shoulders above him and the rest.
Simon Beccle, Racing Post reader

Red Rum: the facts and figures

Foaled 1965 in Ireland, bay gelding by Quorum - Mared (Magic Red)

Owner Noel Le Mare

Trainer Ginger McCain, Southport, Lancashire

Jockeys Brian Fletcher, Tommy Stack

Record over fences 21 wins from 76 starts (1970-78); overall jumps record including hurdles, 24 wins from 100 starts; never fell

Grand National 3 times (record): 1973 (10st 5lb), 1974 (12st), 1977 (11st 8lb); also runner-up 1975, 1976

Scottish Grand National 1974

Other big-race win 1975 Haydock Park National Trial; runner-up in 1973 Hennessy Cognac Gold Cup

Read more: 

Kauto Star: the rock 'n' roll chaser who kept bouncing back to remind the doubters who was king  

Frankel: greatness not in question - but doing it for Sir Henry made it so much more poignant  

Desert Orchid: so much more than just an astonishing racehorse - he became part of the family too 

Denman: they called him The Tank for good reason - and he pushed the boundaries of what we thought possible

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Published on 14 September 2023Last updated 16:08, 14 September 2023