Grand memories of red letter days

Red Rum will always be associated with Aintree and the Grand National. A gelding bred to be a sprinter transformed the ailing race into the behemoth it is now and in the process became a celebrity that opened shops, starred on television shows and sold merchandise. Through it all, Derek Critchley, a key member of the Ginger McCain team, had a front row seat, writes Daragh Ó Conchúir

Grand memories of red letter days

Forty years ago today, Red Rum made the short trip from Ginger McCain’s stable in Southport to Aintree racecourse. Then 13, the Kilkenny-bred gelding had made the journey so many times that he could have trotted out the front gate and made his own way.

The only horse to win the Grand National on three occasions (1973, 1974, 1977), and runner-up twice more, the teenager was in prime condition to make a bold bid for honours once more.

Derek Critchley and Billy Ellison were key members of the McCain team at that time. Everything had gone perfectly in the lead-up to the race.

“If I was to turn the clock back now, I’d say it was his best chance,” says Critchley, in the sitting room of his home in Kildare town. “Even going into the stable yard at Liverpool, he started to buck and kick. And I said to Billy: ‘Mind his hip! He’s going to bang his hip.’ Next thing, that was it. He didn’t knock it or anything. Just suddenly he was lame.”

Cruelly, with his favourite time of the year upon him, Red Rum incurred an injury that meant he would never race again. There was obvious disappointment but no recriminations.

“The horse couldn’t do anymore for anyone. He didn’t owe us anything. He was at the end of his career and had won it all.”

It is acknowledged that Red Rum saved the Grand National. Now the richest jump race in Europe with a £1m (€1.15m) prize fund, it has a global audience of almost 600 million people in 140 countries. But back in the mid-70s, it was dying on its feet.

Yet the story of this former crock, nursed back to health by a second-hand car salesman with a yard behind his showroom on a busy town street, and conditioned on a beach, proved irresistible, a fairytale for the everyman.

By the time Red Rum was finished, you might have had no interest in racing but you knew about the Grand National. The horse was a TV star, appearing on This Is Your Life, Blue Peter, The Generation Game, Record Breakers and BBC’s Sports Personality of the Year.

He opened shops and had his likeness selling all sorts of products. A Red Rum tea towel adorned the wall of this writer’s bedroom, alongside a photo taken from a newspaper of Jimmy Barry Murphy and his young family, and another of the Cork hurling team that completed the All-Ireland three-in-a-row in 1978. It was exalted company.

Racing had never seen anything like this. A racehorse — and a National Hunt horse at that — selling mugs and making guest appearances. At one stage, Japanese-born American wrestler and restaurateur Rocky Aoki offered $1m (€811,000) for him, so he could have him at the opening of all his restaurants.

Critchley had a front row seat. His life is one that has taken its share of twists and turns; from aspiring soccer star to jockey; finding love with an Irish woman and following her to Ireland; from knocking on death’s door to celebrating his 66th birthday yesterday and enjoying retirement from An Post.

And today. The Grand National. Oh the memories.

Young Derek Critchley clearly possessed a sporting gene. Later on, he would be the stable lads’ boxing champion but ever before he saw a horse, he excelled at soccer. Initially a promising goalkeeper, he blossomed when moved outfield and, after trials with Wrexham, Blackpool, and Preston, he was taken on by Southport, a fourth division team managed by future Northern Ireland boss, Billy Bingham.

But an unpredictable chain of events led to a significant diversion from his intended path.

“Where we lived, Ginger McCain came to rent a yard across the road from the house. My mother was in the front room and she saw this person with a mallet in his hand trying to knock a post in. She said to me ‘Go over there and help that chap, will ya?’”

McCain invited him to knock around the place. He wasn’t blown away by the horses but helped out with some general work at weekends. One day, he was doing some painting when he jumped from a ladder and landed on a rusty nail. He did so much damage and missed so much training that he never returned to soccer.

So when he left school in 1967 at 15, he accepted McCain’s offer of a job.

“I’d never sat on a horse on my life. Beryl, his wife, led me around the roads for three days. An hour a day. That’s all. On the fourth day: ‘You’re riding that on your own’ he said to me. Three weeks I was riding canters. Three months I was riding work, schooling. And within a year I had my first ride in public.”

It was a few years later that Red Rum came on the scene. McCain trained a horse for wealthy businessman Noel Le Mare called Glenkiln.

“Noel Le Mare said: ‘I’ve three wishes in life: To marry a beautiful woman — I did, become a millionaire — which I have, and to own a Grand National winner. I want a Grand National horse.’”

Glenkiln was supposed to be that horse but McCain mistakenly withdrew him from the race in 1972. So Le Mare instructed him to buy another horse as back-up for the following year.

“Ginger goes off to the sales and buys a horse called Wolverhampton. We had him for three months when he had a heart attack on the gallop and died. That’s when he went to Doncaster and bought Red Rum for six grand.”

Within two days of arriving at Southport, he was “as lame as a duck”.

Thinking he might just be suffering a bruised foot, the trainer called his farrier, Bob Marshall. It was much worse.

“Laminitis. It was a disaster. Horses rarely recover from that. Anyway, I held Red Rum and Bob put this tar on his hoof first, then a leather sole and he made him a shoe with a bar on the back, so his whole foot wasn’t going on the ground, only his toe. It was absolutely brilliant what he did.

“We used to take Red down to the beach and he loved it. At times, the waves were three or four foot. You’d be nearly swept out of the saddle. He loved it! It was a great exercise but it helped.”

Marshall modified the shoe in time and the recovery was full. He was never lame another day until stepping into the yard at Aintree in 1978 that last time.

“He was the luckiest horse to survive. But he was also the most intelligent. If you pulled him out of the box and a couple of horses were in front of you, he wouldn’t stop boring ya, and bucking and kicking. When you got to the front, a two-year-old could ride him. He just had to be at the front. And if someone came to the yard with a camera, he’d prick his ears.”

It was the showmanship that he put to full use in his retirement.

There was another side to him though. It is astonishing really, but Red Rum was bred to be a Flat horse, built for speed rather than endurance. His first race as a two-year-old was in a five-furlong sprint. Remarkably, it was in Aintree too, and he dead-heated for victory with a horse called Curlicue, ridden by Lester Piggott. Piggott would go on to ride Red Rum twice.

“He’d eat you in the box. He’d try to bite ya and he’d try to kick ya. The moment you put a body brush on him, he wanted to do ya. But that was him.

“To be such a divil in the box. You could walk around with him, do anything… until you took a brush out. The minute he saw it, he cocked his head. He knew what was going to happen. That was the Flat breeding.”

Those were very different times. Look at the photos from the old magazines Critchley keeps and you note the absence of helmets, long locks flowing in the wind. The back protector was a twinkle in a future safety officer’s eye.

All of those work photos were taken on the beach. It was a unique setting for a training operation. It was all McCain had to exercise his charges but he soon learned the benefits. They galloped twice a week but it was always gentle. The tide and the sand dunes got them fit.

“Every horse went in the tide, and every horse went a mile. It was power work. They were up to their chest.

“We went up and down the sand dunes. Some of them went up an incline of 100 yards, over a distance. That strengthened the shoulders.”

It was a regime that suited Red Rum perfectly.

“When he got rid of his laminitis and he started work, the first couple of spins I had on him I thought: ‘This is a racehorse’ and he wasn’t anywhere near fit. He wouldn’t be 60% fit and he’d pull your arms out for a mile and a quarter, no problem, and you not even moving your hands. He was a freak.”

McCain made no administration errors for the 1973 Grand National and thus he and Le Mare were doubly represented. Glenkiln had cruised to victory in the Grand National Trial at Aintree and wore the owner’s first colours, with Jonjo O’Neill on board. Red Rum was fancied too though and Brian Fletcher, who had won the race before on Red Alligator, was given the ride.

“The first National he ran in, if I said to you he was 20 lengths behind jumping the last and he went on to win, you’d say: ‘Go way, that’s not possible.’ But he did. You’d have to look at that video to believe it. You had to feel sorry for Crisp, the New Zealand horse, 18 hands — and here was Red Rum, the little pony.”

After defending his crown 12 months later, Red Rum went on and bolted up in the Scottish National a few weeks later under top weight. It was an exceptional feat, one that no trainer would even consider attempting now.

McCain could be a difficult character however and Fletcher was replaced for the ’75 renewal of the Grand National.

“It took one little comment. The third year, Ginger ran him as usual in the Greenall Whitley Chase, just before the Grand National and Brian Fletcher said: ‘Ginger, I think he’s gone over the top.’ Well how he didn’t hit him!”

Kerryman Tommy Stack inherited the mount and after finishing second twice, was part of history in registering that third triumph in 1977.

By now, the yard was a visitor attraction centre and Red Rum preened for the cameras.

“He went up on the lift at This Is Your Life

. They soundproofed the lift and he went up two floors onto the stage. Tommy Stack was on the television. He had his ears back and as soon as Tommy started talking to him, he pricked his ears up. But it didn’t put him out at all. He was so placid. And he loved the attention.”

Critchley was happy in the background. He hadn’t lost touch completely with soccer and coached a local U10 team. Paul Dalglish, Kenny’ son, who would go on to play for Newcastle United and is currently a manager in the US, was a member of the squad.

“Kenny used to say to me sometimes: ‘Would you collect Paul? I’m at a meeting.’ So I used to call to the house and have a cup of coffee with his wife Marina, take Paul to training and drop him back. Every Sunday, Kenny would be on the line watching his son. Paul was a good striker.

“Kenny would say to Paul. ‘When did you last kick someone? If you don’t kick anybody next week, you don’t play.’”

One day the phone call came.

“‘Mr Critchley?’

“‘What’s up Paul?’

“‘My Dad said I can’t play tomorrow.

“‘Why is that?’

“‘I didn’t eat my tea.’

“He was strict but he was dead sound.’”

The Critchley riding skills were utilised on the screen, for the six-part television series The Racing Game

and the film Dead Cert

. He got to jump the National fences in the latter, earning a whopping £50 (€58) a day for six days’ work, though he would have done it for nothing. It is a week he remembers fondly, even though a fall broke a collarbone and some ribs. There are some prices a man is willing to pay.

He is a long time ensconced in Kildare now. He met Olive when she came to McCain’s to visit her boyfriend, who also worked there. Derek created a good impression and 32 years later, they are married with two sons, Scott and Diarmaid.

He worked for a while with Hugh McGrath and then with Dermot Weld.

“Dermot Weld is the second-best boss I ever had after Ginger. Whatever you did at Dermot Weld’s, minding a winner, what your expenses were, whatever it was, you got in your wage packet. You never had to look for anything. He was such a genuine person like that.

“He loved to listen to the stories about Red Rum. He’d listen to you all day.”

Sporting talent wasn’t the only gene Critchley inherited, unfortunately. His father and brother died young with heart conditions, as did his brother’s daughter. His own daughter from a previous relationship, Jennifer, suffered a serious heart attack last year but thankfully made a full recovery. He has had four heart attacks himself, and 11 stents inserted.

“I died going into James’s and they brought me back,” he says.

He is a new man though, thanks to the defibrillator. While he had to pack in coaching at Kildare AFC, he is exercising more and has a good diet. He is no longer living in fear, anticipating the next heart attack, the one that might kill him. The defibrillator has given him confidence. He has lost two stone and feels great.

“I’m one of the lucky ones,” he remarks.

Just like Red Rum, you reply.

“That’s it. Just like Red Rum.”

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