I first published this in October 2012. With the National approaching, I thought it worth another ‘outing’
Seventeen years ago today I was having breakfast in Winterborne Cottage where I was living at the time. It was the shortest commute I’d ever had, nestled in the trees about a hundred yards west of the winner’s enclosure at Aintree racecourse. Aintree’s 270 enclosed acres held a few properties and I was fortunate to live in one, at a peppercorn rent. I’d left SiS the year before to become Aintree’s first marketing manager.
At 8.20 my mobile rang. Aintree MD Charles Barnett, perfect diction unruffled as ever said, ‘Joe, Red Rum died this morning. He’s on his way here. We want him under the ground before telling the press. Can you meet me by the winning post in half an hour?’
It was a job. I didn’t stop to reflect on my life or the part Red Rum had played in it, or the path that had led me from a pit village in Lanarkshire to the best racecourse in the world. I was a working class boy whose habitual truancy led to a note from the headmaster to my father eight weeks short of my fifteenth birthday: “If your son dislikes school so much, tell him not to come back.” (Oh those pre-politically correct days!).
And I never went back, considering myself expelled at 14. I rejoiced and headed out into the world without a qualification to my name but armed with a twenty-two carat romantic view of life gained from all the books I’d read, huddled in the corner of warm libraries when I should have been at school.
The only teacher I ever paid attention to was one I’d never met, Dick Francis. I’d got through a book of his a day.
On a patch of old farm land behind St Pat’s school in my village, an optimistic farmer called Jim Barrett trained a dozen horses. I never thought then how incongruous it was, these ten acres or so, surrounded by steelworks and abandoned pits. I never noticed the smoky industry; I saw Uplands, Saxon House, Seven Barrows. But no Lanzarote or Bula was housed there.
Still, third-rate thoroughbreds were racehorses, creatures of unlimited potential and I’d be there in many frozen dawns to groom and muck out and sometimes ride and watch the stable jockey, three years my senior and better known in the village as the son of the owner of the fish and chip shop. His name was Len Lungo and a couple of years later he headed south to ride Martin Pipe’s first ever winner, Hit Parade.
The Guv’nor (oh, how I loved calling him that) used to weigh me once a week and I’d starve in the previous twenty four hours hoping that next day he’d tell me I’d make it as a jockey. But he never did and I never stopped growing. Jim Barrett died a relatively young man and I was cast adrift looking for some way to stay in ‘the sport’.
The best I could manage was a job with Ladbrokes. By the time of Red Rum’s first National I was nineteen and managing a busy betting shop in Hamilton and cursing Red Rum not just for catching the magnificent Crisp in the dying strides of that wonderful race, but for being the best bet for many at 9/1 joint-fav with the runner-up.
Those were the days when settling was done without machines. We worked furiously through around 5,000 betting slips as the queues of happy punters snaked around the shop and out the door.
That was the first of Rummy’s Nationals. It was the first of mine as a bona fide worker in the betting industry. That race, that finish, the particpants were to play a huge part in my life – unplanned, never knowingly sought. Had someone told me that day how it would all pan out, even at my most romantic and optimistic, I’d never have believed it.
Twenty two years later, breakfast abandoned, I sat in Winterborne Cottage drafting the press release to fax to my great friend Nigel Payne who had recruited me to SiS and had been instrumental in me getting the job at Aintree. The plan was to give the old horse a quiet burial without the media swarming all over the track. One of the reasons for the secrecy was, I suppose, the fact that it is almost impossible to bury half a ton of thoroughbred in a dignified manner.
Walking toward the winning post on that fine dry morning, I passed the place where I’d stood with Red Rum on the day of his 30th birthday, five months before.
May 3rd was to be just another meeting at Aintree. We were down to five meetings a year. In the 60s, Aintree had staged about 17 meetings a year, flat and jumps, but as the course fell further into disrepair, Mrs Topham gradually surrendered meetings till we were left with just a handful.
Anyway, preparing for that May meeting, I noticed in Red Rum’s Timeform essay that he’d been born on May 3rd 1965. I suggested to Charles Barnett that we call our meeting Red Rum’s 30th Birthday Meeting. Charles, always open to ideas said “Crack on.”
I rang Ginger to see if the horse would be well enough to attend and, cheery and helpful as ever, he said. “Of course he will, old son.” It didn’t take long to get a buzz going. The BBC and ITV asked if they could send news teams. We were getting calls from the international media and I got kind of carried away and told Charles I was going to create a special racecard and order 10,000 of them. That May meeting had seldom attracted more than 3,000 racegoers.
“You won’t sell them, Joe.”
“We will. Trust me. I’ve got an interview with Ginger in there, a special portrait of Red Rum on the cover. Timeform have agreed to let me publish their full essay on him from Chasers and Hurdlers!”
“There’s no way, you’ll sell close to ten thousand.”
“Trust me, Charles!”
He smiled and gave one of his shrugs (think Hooper in Jaws trying to dissuade the men in the overcrowded boat “They’re all gonna die!”)
When the track emptied after the meeting I was left staring at a stack of unopened boxes holding about 7,000 racecards. But CB never ever said “I told you so,” and the fact that he didn’t meant a lot to me.
Anyway, on that May evening, I’d walked out with Red Rum and his handler from the old stables. We came across behind the stands, Rummy looking splendid in his coat in the fading sun, ambling along quietly. But just as we came around the end of the Queen Mother stand, about thirty yards beyond the winning post, Rummy raised his head quickly and pricked his ears. His eyes became brighter and he stood very still for what seemed a long time, just watching. Lord knows what he was remembering but I will never forget that image.
Twenty four weeks later he was back close to the winning post he loved so well. This time he was lying on his left side, head toward the red and white disk above him, eyes closed, breath gone. No pallbearers, no coffin, no shroud.
Ginger was on my left, Charles on my right beside the only other man there, Bob Dixon, head groundsman whose precious turf had been gouged by the shovel of a yellow JCB which scooped out more than enough earth to make sure there’d be no embarrassing ‘rehearsal’.
Charles turned toward Ginger. Ginger looked at his oldest equine friend one final time and nodded. Charles raised a thumb to the JCB driver and the shovel was lowered to slip slowly below the spine of the finest Grand National horse that had ever galloped those acres since the first National in 1839. Slowly, slowly, slowly, Rummy was pushed toward the edge of his grave until gravity took over. Ginger walked forward and threw in a handful of fresh earth. I turned and went to my office to place an order for his headstone and to write his epitaph for it.
It didn’t take long for me to figure out that a square yard of marble was never going to be enough on which to do credit to a true equine legend and I settled for the simplest of words. I showed them to Charles and to Ginger and they agreed there was nothing more to say.
A couple of weeks ago, on a beautiful morning, another player in that 1973 National sat with me on Fred Winter’s memorial bench outside his old yard Uplands, the place I’d dreamed of as a teenager. Richard Pitman and I published our first novel 20 years after Rummy’s first win and Richard’s heart-rending defeat on Crisp.
I’d wanted to go there with Richard. Next year is the 40th anniversary of the great race. From that famous yard behind us, Crisp had been driven north to Liverpool. He came back having endeared himself to anyone who had a heart. His jockey came back with the memory of an experience no other human being would ever have. Richard never claimed to be a great jockey. He wasn’t, but he has always been too modest. There were few who could get a horse jumping the way he could and even fewer who would blame themselves for losing the most famous race in the world when giving 23lbs to what turned out to be the greatest Grand National horse in history.
Sitting on that bench Richard explained to me, “It wasn’t so much picking up my stick before the Elbow that was the mistake, it was taking my hand off the reins to use it.” He has had almost 40 years of being tough on himself. I have had 40 years in a sport I love. I never knew the touchstone for me would turn out to be the 1973 Grand National. I helped bury the winning horse. I wrote novels with the man who rode Crisp. I have not sat on a racehorse these past 40 years but it has turned out a great ride through life for me – no skill required from the pilot, carried safely round the course by Lady Luck.
Richard and Joe’s first novel Warned Off is on Kindle. Click on the book cover to see details and reviews. Thanks
Categories: John Smith's Grand National