Three-time Grand National hero Red Rum made his debut - on the Flat
Steve Dennis looks back to the early days of a horse who become a legend
First published on Tuesday, February 3, 2015
Job done done, straight out of the gate. Red Rum was bought to win a specific race at Aintree on his two-year-old debut, and win it he did. Everything that came after, in a career that passed effortlessly into legend, was a bonus.
Red Rum's first owner Maurice Kingsley liked a bet, liked to plan a gamble. He had owned the great triple Champion Hurdle winner Sir Ken, but he was certainly not averse to dabbling in the shallower reaches of the racing pool. His association with Red Rum's first trainer Tim Molony was forged through Molony's riding of Sir Ken and, a few years into the five-time champion jockey's training career, Kingsley made a request of him.
"Buy me one to win that two-year-old seller at Aintree next spring," he told Molony, in the manner of a businessman who expects his demands to be met. Molony went to the sales in Dublin, armed with a commission and a budget of around £500, and did Kingsley's bidding, purchasing a bay sprint-bred son of Quorum for 400gns. He brought him back to his little Leicestershire yard, had him gelded – there was no great purpose in his pedigree – and set about training him for that two-year-old seller six months hence.
Ivor Herbert, in his luminous account of Red Rum's life – Red Rum: The Story of Ginger McCain and his Legendary Horse – provides a vivid insight into the horse's early years. The gelding was fortunate indeed to find himself with Molony, a first-class horseman, who 'broke' him with consideration and prepared him with an eye not fixed solely on that seller but on more distant horizons.
Name Red Rum
Born Rossenarra Stud, County Kilkenny, May 3, 1965
Breeder Martyn McEnery
Flat career Ran ten, won three (including a dead-heat). Owned by Maurice Kingsley, trained by Tim Molony
Jumps career Ran 100, won 24. Cinderella horse who won a record three Grand Nationals, plus 1974 Scottish Grand National. Owned by Lurline Brotherton, Noel Le Mare; trained by Bobby Renton, Tommy Stack, Tony Gillam, Ginger McCain
Grand National Ran five, won three: 1973 (ridden by Brian Fletcher), 1974 (Brian Fletcher), 1977 (Tommy Stack). Also second in 1975 (to L'Escargot) and 1976 (to Rag Trade). Overcame pedalostitis and owed his unique record to his stamina and his careful, deliberate style of jumping
Retired On eve of 1978 Grand National; a celebrity who opened supermarkets and switched on the Blackpool Illuminations
Died Cholmondeley, Cheshire, October 18, 1995, aged 30; buried near the winning post at Aintree
The story Moderate horse has unexciting Flat career before being sold to run over jumps
What happened next He became the most famous, most well-loved horse in the world
Red Rum was straightforward to 'break', a hearty eater, not keen on traffic, a bit of a character. Molony's wife Stella remembered: "Nearly every day he was getting into scrapes because he was so fresh and above himself. He dropped the lads many times."
But he was a good worker, when his hot-headed nature had cooled sufficiently, and soon moved to the top of the pecking order among Molony's small string. One morning Kingsley came to the yard to give his horse a name, alighting rather ponderously on Red Rum, after his dam Ma-red and sire Quo-rum.
He was soon ready, and Molony knew he was ready, to the extent he interrupted his beloved three-day pilgrimage to Cheltenham in March to return home for the gelding's final pre-race gallop, which pleased all who witnessed it. "He was far better than the others," said head lad Jock Mayes, quoted by Herbert. Molony passed the word on to Kingsley, who began to buff his betting boots to a high shine.
In those days Aintree was a dual-purpose course, Flat contests rubbing shoulders with jump races at a meeting that possessed very little of the prestige now attached to it.
Twenty-four hours later Foinavon would confound the world with his incredible victory in the Grand National, but Molony's attention was firmly focused on the first race on the Friday, the nine-runner Thursby Selling Plate over five furlongs, worth £266 to the winner.
The task of steering Kingsley's steering job fell to Paul Cook, who had won the previous year's 1,000 Guineas on the Vincent O'Brien-trained Glad Rags.
The money went down, bringing Red Rum's odds smartly in to 5-1, third choice behind the once-raced Irish filly Blue Spider. Now was the hour.
"The horse started all right, but he was a bit slow into his stride," said Molony in Herbert's book. "Paul definitely gave the little horse too much to do. I was a bit worried." Luckily, there isn't much time to stay worried during a five-furlong race, and Molony's mood soon improved. After running pretty green for the first three furlongs, Red Rum – noted as being 'workmanlike, leggy' in the official form book comments – realised what the game was all about and began to use the speed he had shown on the gallops.
A furlong out he was third, and Red Rum finished his race off to such an extent that Cook, dressed in Kingsley's familiar pink-and-black-quartered silks, got him up in the last stride to force a dead-heat with Curlicue. The plan had come to fruition, although Kingsley would have to be satisfied with half-stakes on his winner. Whatever the condition of his wallet, he was sufficiently content to buy Red Rum back for 300gns at the auction. Job done.
McEnery bought Mared cheaply at the sales, and sent her to be trained by Phonsie O'Brien (brother of Vincent). O'Brien sent her back, precipitately, saying he could do nothing with her. McEnery began to train her himself, coping as best he could with her headstrong tendencies and propensity to work herself into a lather of sweat at the slightest provocation. It is testament to McEnery's skills that he managed to win a little race at Galway with Mared, landing a touch in the process, but the gamble was fraught with uncertainty.
"Before her races she would turn black with sweat and white with froth," McEnery told Herbert. "At Galway we had to throw a bucket of water over her and then try to dry her off again even before she came into the paddock."
Mared's racing career was short and not so sweet. At stud she bred McEnery two poor types from the stallion Neron, before McEnery resolved to try for pure speed and sent her to Quorum, runner-up to Crepello in the 2,000 Guineas and winner of the Sussex Stakes and Jersey Stakes. Quorum had class and speed, Mared had spirit and not much else. A blend of their genes would, McEnery hoped, produce something that would be commercially popular and fast from stalls to line. He got Red Rum.
McEnery expected Red Rum to sell well – Quorum's progeny were generally well sought after – but his expectations and hopes were thoroughly dashed at the Goffs September sale at Ballsbridge, Dublin. He put a reserve of 800gns on his yearling, but the die seemed cast when the Quorum colt was designated an early lot and attracted little interest at the sale complex, and actually slipped over when he was being led out for inspection. That tumble made him walk stiffly around the sales ring, and no-one wanted him.
Molony got him for 400gns, saving a little cash on Kingsley's budget. McEnery was enormously disappointed, more so as his other yearlings either failed to attract a bid or were sold well under their reserve. The following year he would sell Mared, having little cause to regret it.
But a winner's a winner, and at Aintree Red Rum had done what he was bred and bought for. Molony kept him busy, sending him to Beverley three weeks later where, ridden now by Joe Sime, he finished down the field. After a break of six weeks, Red Rum ran at now-vanished Teesside Park, partnered by Eddie Larkin. Again, he was unplaced.
He wasn't all that good, then. Next time out Red Rum was found a better race at Newcastle, where he started at 33-1 and was accompanied by George Cadwaladr, his fourth jockey in four races. This time, however, he performed above expectations, finishing third behind Mount Athos, who within the year would run third in Sir Ivor's Derby. So, perhaps there was something there after all.
Molony had performed sterling work, and now Red Rum was qualified for handicaps would build on that. Two months later, moved up to seven furlongs at Warwick with just 7st 11lb and Derek Morris on his back, Red Rum displayed considerable grit and courage to see off 13 rivals by a harddriven neck. This close-pressed, hardat-it two-year-old could surely only keep up this sort of thing for two or three seasons.
Two weeks passed and, with the path to the well becoming increasingly worn, Lester Piggott got the leg-up as Red Rum tried a mile for the first time at Pontefract, although the maestro was unable to finesse any more than third-place prize-money.
After that exertion, it might have been imagined a rest was in order, but before the week was out Red Rum had made the short trip to Leicester, reunited with Morris and equipped for the first time with a set of blinkers.
Whether Molony had spied something lacking in his character or in his work, or whether it was purely the impulse to leave no stone unturned in the attempt to eke out a few pounds' improvement, it had no transformative effect. Red Rum finished fourth behind the unpalatably named Coonbeam. It was his fourth race within a month, his eighth of a long season, and he had finally done enough.
Red Rum ate his way cheerfully through the winter, had a little schooling over hurdles, Molony conscious of his likely future, and grew up a bit. He took extra work and thrived upon it, and his general all-round heartiness led Kingsley to plot a second gamble.
Again the plan was to cash in early, and Red Rum was entered in a selling handicap at Doncaster in the opening week of the season, allotted 9st 2lb. With a big-name rider in Geoff Lewis, a reasonable weight and connections who knew the time of day without recourse to a wristwatch, Red Rum's effect on the betting fraternity was as though he'd been napped by Pricewise.
The post-race auction brought further drama, with Molony taken all the way to 1,400gns before buying Red Rum back. At which point Kingsley said the price was too high, and he wouldn't have him. Molony decided to have him himself. A day later, Kingsley changed his mind and coughed up.
Within 48 hours Red Rum was back on a racecourse, back at Aintree, the last twist of this colourful chapter in his life ready in the scriptwriter's pen.
It was a decent mile handicap, probably the best race he'd been in, run an hour after Red Alligator had won the Grand National, ridden by a certain Brian Fletcher. Under a 10lb penalty, under the renewed ministrations of the vigorous Piggott, Red Rum was yet again drawn into a dour struggle for the mastery. He and Alan's Pet flashed over the line in lockstep, in a vivid echo of the dead-heat with Curlicue 12 months before, but this time the judge came to a decision. Red Rum was announced as the winner; Piggott's stone face might have cracked a smile. Then the judge thought twice, and Red Rum's number was pulled out of the frame and Alan's Pet called the winner. The margin was a short head.
So Red Rum had been beaten at Aintree, although he'd have won comfortably but for that 10lb penalty. Molony took him home, dreaming of an autumn filled with three-year-old hurdles. Scant days later, he answered his telephone only to be told by jumps trainer Bobby Renton he'd bought Red Rum and would be collecting him soon. Molony was shattered; faithful Jock Mayes was disgusted at the cloak-and-dagger way in which the horse had been spirited away. A little less than six months later, Red Rum would make his hurdling debut at Cheltenham.
Red Rum had run ten times on the Flat inside 12 months, won two and a half races, been ridden by eight jockeys, showed a little ability, a great deal of grit and resolution, and a certain amount of potential. Now his Flat career, for which he had been bred, was behind him, and the uncertainty of life over jumps beckoned.
What would the future hold for Red Rum?
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