THEY called him Mr National, and Aintree certainly won’t be the same place without Donald “Ginger” McCain, the trainer of National heroes Red Rum and Amberleigh House, who died last September aged 80, five months after watching his son Donald train Ballabriggs to win the Grand National.
Yet Aintree will not be without Ginger in a sense. On Thursday, a statue of him commissioned by the racecourse will be unveiled by his widow, Beryl, at a ceremony attended by all the McCain family.
“It’s very nice of them and I’m sure he would really appreciate it,” said Donald McCain yesterday. “The family are looking forward to Thursday, but after it we’ll just carry on and keep our heads down.”
Donald is having a season his father could only have dreamed of. His Bank House stables in Cheshire have won well over £1 million in prize money with more than 140 winners, and now with Ballabriggs he has an outstanding chance of winning a second National in a row, something last achieved by his father with Red Rum nearly 40 years ago.
The 11-year-old Ballabriggs has had only one race this season, finishing fourth in a hot handicap at Kelso. Some pundits were disappointed, but McCain, jockey Jason Maguire and owner Trevor Hemmings were pleased with the “prep” outing.
“The race at Kelso was absolutely just what he needed and we were happy with him,” said McCain. “Jason was happy with him, too.
“He’s done well since and we can have no complaints. We’re very pleased with him, and we’ve been able to get enough work done.”
McCain had not really anticipated that Cheltenham Gold Cup winner Synchronised would take part in the National, for which he is top weight at 11st 10lbs. The Jonjo O’Neill-trained and JP McManus-owned horse will be Tony McCoy’s mount.
“I didn’t expect it,” said McCain, “but it doesn’t make a huge difference to us anyway. All we can do is get there on the day as ready as we can.
“Put it this way – we wouldn’t swap him and that’s for sure.”
The official handicapper has raised Ballabriggs for last year’s win so that he will carry 11st 9lbs, normally a “stopping” weight over the distance.
“He’s been hard enough on him,” said McCain. “We’ve got nearly top weight for winning a National but it’s not a problem. We’ve got what we’ve got so we’ll just get on and deal with it.”
What a battle it could be – the Gold Cup winner against the reigning Grand National champion. The prospect of those two battling it out around the Elbow is mouth-watering, but could it really come to pass?
Synchronised has won marathons, including the 2010 Midlands Grand National over four miles and two furlongs at Uttoxeter. If he handles the National fences he should win, but that’s the big question; whereas Ballabriggs certainly knows his way round Aintree.
Other likely contenders include On His Own, chosen by Ruby Walsh as his mount following the injury-enforced defection of ante-post favourite Prince de Beauchene. It is surely significant that Walsh, twice winner of the Grand National, has chosen Willie Mullins’ horse rather than Seabass, the other great Irish hope trained by his father Ted, who promptly handed the ride to Ruby’s sister Katie. Last year’s Irish national winner Organisedconfusion will be another big hope from the Emerald Isle, while David Pipe’s Junior and Evan Williams’ Cappa Bleu are the other main home hopes. Shakalakaboomboom from Nicky Henderson’s yard must be a good each-way shot, as is Chicago Grey from the National-winning yard of Gordon Elliott.
Such classy animals prove that the Grand National will never be a two-horse race, but for once we could see a duel, with Ballabriggs taken to outstay Synchronised.
At the start of the three-day Aintree extravaganza there will be massive interest in a race that doesn’t often make the headlines, but then the BCG Partners Liverpool Hurdle does not often feature a “nailed on” record attempt.
Thursday’s renewal of the three mile, 110 yards hurdle for top-class stayers will feature Big Buck’s trying to win his 17th race in a row, which would break the record set by the legendary Sir Ken in the 1950s. Big Buck’s equalled the record by winning his fourth Ladbroke World Hurdle at last month’s Cheltenham Festival, and now he is odds-on to become the consecutive wins record holder. It would also be his fourth Liverpool Hurdle in a row at a track where he is unbeaten.