When Donald McCain pulled up in his taxi outside the Prince of Wales hotel in Southport one wet summer’s evening, he couldn’t have known that his next fare was about to change his life and make racing history.
Donald, also known as Ginger, had a used car sales business, driving the taxi to make some extra cash to fund his real passion, horseracing. He’d come a long way since driving horse-drawn floats for the local butcher and this early experience of horses had set him on a lifelong path. He loved racing and back in 1953, aged 23, applied for a training permit, starting to train horses in 1962 the year after he married and keeping a small stables behind the showroom of his used-car lot. But business was bad and he had a wife, Beryl, and two children, Joanne and Donald Junior, to think about.
For a while racing had to take a back seat as Ginger concentrated on selling used cars and picking up punters from the pub. Then, as business slowly picked-up he began to dabble in racing again and, with a keen eye for a jumper, began buying horses that had broken down or that other trainers had given up on – even managing to win a few races with them.
As he waited for his fare to come out of the hotel Ginger dreamed of winning the Grand National. It had been his ambition since the age of 9 when he’d first attended the race, 15 miles away at Aintree, and one day he was determined to train a horse that would do just that. But where would he find the money?
Now where was his fare? Ginger didn’t like to be kept waiting. If he wasn’t out soon then he could stick his fare in the same place the French could stick their racing. He’d had some famous fares in his time, and some strange ones – Frank Sinatra, Norman Wisdom, Margaret Rutherford – and on one occasion a fully grown lion, who’d growled and slavered in the back of the car as Ginger drove him and his handler from Southport all the way to London Zoo. Ginger hoped that his fare today wouldn’t be quite as terrifying.
Eventually the door of the Prince of Wales swung open and a single figure stepped onto the steps leading down to the wet pavement where Ginger waited in his taxi. It was a figure that Ginger knew by reputation but hadn’t had the pleasure of meeting until now. A well-dressed man, dapper in suit and tie, was leaving the dinner-dance that he attended most Saturday evenings.
Noel Le Mare had only 3 ambitions in life: to become a millionaire, to marry a beautiful woman and to own a Grand National winner. By this time he was well on his way to achieving 2 out of the 3 – his wife was a beauty and his construction business was going from strength to strength – all that remained was to realise his third.
As Ginger drove Mr. Le Mare to his home at 2a Waterloo Road the conversation turned to racing. It was a conversation that was to create one of the best-loved National winners in racing history and might even have saved Aintree from closure.
That was the first of many Saturday night dinner-dance fares for Ginger, after that first time Noel would always be sure to arrange for Ginger to meet him in his taxi and drive him to and from the Prince of Wales. A friendship sprang up, fuelled by their mutual love of racing and their shared Grand National Ambitions.
When Ginger spotted a horse in the 1972 Scottish Grand National he made a mental note to speak to Noel about him. The horse had come in fifth but Ginger’s eye for horses told him that this could be the National winner they were both looking for. The horse was called Red Rum and, despite the horse having been diagnosed with the bone disease pedalositis, Ginger was determined to persuade Le mare to buy him. Ginger was growing tired of begging Le Mare to allow him to train the winner they both so desperately wanted so was overjoyed when on this occasion Le Mare agreed. Ginger bought Red Rum on behalf of Noel for 6,000 guineas at the Doncaster Sales – a small fortune to McCain back then.
The rest, as they say, is racing history. With nowhere else to train the horse McCain famously trained on the beach at Southport where the saltwater worked wonders for Red Rum’s feet. Red Rum went on to become one of the all-time-greats, winning three Grand Nationals and finishing second in two more. When he lined up for his fifth consecutive National in 1977, no horse had ever won the race three times, but 12-year-old “Rummy” won with ease causing a frenzy in the stands and prompting commentator Peter O’Sullevan to scream: “It’s hats off and a tremendous reception – you’ve never heard one like it at Liverpool!”
Surprisingly, Noel le Mare had thought his other horse, Glenkiln, had a better chance than Red Rum of winning the 1973 Grand National, but fortunately for Aintree he was proved to be wrong. Many attribute McCain and Red-Rum with saving Aintree from the property developers.
Ginger McCain – ate, drank and slept Aintree and the Grand National; so much so that when he was nicknamed “Mr Aintree” and with his huge personality, amazing success and of course Red Rum, almost single-handedly revived the flagging fortunes of the world’s most famous horse race. He died in 2011 aged 80 only 2 days before his 81st birthday.
Red Rum retired after being injured on the eve of the big race in 1978 and was eventually put down in 1995 aged 30. He is buried at Aintree.
Noel le Mare realised his final ambition to own a Grand National winner at the ripe old age of 84, making him one of the oldest owners to have a National winner.