The Cult: Red Rum

Saddle up, motherfuckers, because this week’s inductee to The Cult is an actual horse.

Apr 11 2017, 10:02am

Illustration by Dan Evans

Saddle up, motherfuckers, because this week's inductee to The Cult is an actual horse. You can read previous entries here.

Cult Grade: Neigh Bother

What was Red Rum thinking, as he leapt the 30th fence at Aintree and charged home in 1977? How did he feel as his tiring hind legs burst through the fence's tangled foliage, and he suddenly found himself alone and triumphant on the final straight? With a generous handful of lengths between him and his nearest challengers, the exhausted Eyecatcher and Churchtown Boy, only some unforeseen disaster could have denied him his third Grand National victory: an achievement unmatched in the history of horse racing. With hooves thundering, gargantuan muscles straining beneath his chestnut coat and his sable tail fluttering like a pennant in the wind, he charged towards the line with inevitable momentum. Urged on by jockey Tommy Stack, exhorted by the cheering of the crowd, what must have gone through Red Rum's sleek and slender head as he galloped over the finishing line?

There are many emotions we could project on to Red Rum in this moment, and when it comes to writing about horse racing anthropomorphism has long been in vogue. We could write about Red Rum's pride, relief, satisfaction and joy, all in a futile attempt to humanise a horse. The truth is that, while Red Rum brought great happiness and excitement to the British public, none of us have even the remotest clue what he was feeling or thinking in his moment of triumph. We are human beings, and he was an entirely different animal. He could have been thinking about an enormous, celestial sugar cube for all we know, and there's nothing wrong with admitting our total ignorance in that regard.

Perhaps because of humanity's long and intimate relationship with horses, we are often hopelessly romantic in the way we express their emotions and instincts. Since man invented the saddle, people have been racing on, falling off, fighting from and dying alongside our equine companions, and that gives them a certain distinction in our eyes which leads us to endow them with human traits. So the legendary jockey A.P. McCoy once described the Grand National course on which Red Rum made his name as "the ultimate test of a horse's courage." But do horses feel anything akin to courage, or are they merely compelled to do our bidding by artificial obstacles and the sting of a riding crop? While McCoy may have spent long enough around horses to feel a close emotional connection to them, he has never shared a brain with one, and as such not even he can say.

Of course, the essential futility of humanising a horse has never stopped people from trying. The treatment of Red Rum, both during his life and afterwards, exemplifies this in the most surreal of ways. Having become the most famous and celebrated animal in the country after winning the Grand National in 1973, 1974 and 1977 – finishing second in both races in the interim – Red Rum soon found himself being asked to inaugurate supermarkets, parades and rollercoasters at Blackpool Pleasure Beach. In the year he won his final Grand National, he 'switched on' the Blackpool Illuminations using a special pedal designed for his hooves, and subsequently appeared as a studio guest in front of a live audience on the BBC's Sports Personality of the Year.

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While it was no doubt done with the best of intentions, the treatment of a horse as a human celebrity was, we must surely all agree, fundamentally bizarre. In creating a giant peddle on which Red Rum could stand and initiate Blackpool's annual lights festival, the organisers were presuming that, were it not for his cloven hooves – damn these accursed, fingerless appendages! – Red Rum would be inaugurating such events left, right and centre with all the grace and aplomb of a veteran VIP. The fact that his famous trainer, Ginger McCain, could not simply press the button for him – that Red Rum had to be the one to do it, so that he might be properly exalted in the process – revealed the strange and most likely unreciprocated reverence in which he was held. One suspects that Red Rum was largely unmoved by this honour, mainly because the ceremony of illuminating Blackpool must have meant very little in the context of being a horse.

When Red Rum appeared in the BBC studio in 1977, he was described by SPOTY presenter Frank Bough as being a "true professional". This was said as if, during his time at Broadcasting House, Red Rum had not neighed, farted or dropped an enormous turd on the floor, all of which are things that horses are wont to do. Were a human celebrity to do any of these things, they would most likely find themselves without a return invite, but Red Rum was lauded and acclaimed regardless. Speaking about Red Rum's turn on SPOTY in a 2013 interview, Claire Balding said with complete earnestness: "He was the most amazing horse. You know, he turned on the lights at Blackpool Tower, he went to weddings and he opened supermarkets, so he was pretty well used to this kind of thing."

See, these things did not make Red Rum amazing. He would have been an amazing horse had he done these things of his own volition, wandering about on his hind legs, shaking the hands of local grandees and doing the rounds as an after-dinner speaker, perhaps while collaborating on a series of memoirs. Rather, Red Rum was a horse being forced to participate in civil society, or at least led around in an oblivious manner while social events unfolded around him. He was a horse on to whom the public, the media and the horse racing community projected their own whims, desires and human behaviours, even though – when it came to opening regional amenities and being made to appear on the telly – he almost certainly couldn't have cared less.

In that sense, it would be absurd to say that Red Rum was a bold and courageous competitor; an equine athlete with a human nature to whom we could all relate. He would no doubt have been more impressed with a bag of carrots than a written encomium, for a bag of carrots is probably more consequential to a horse. What we can say is that Red Rum's trio of victories at the Grand National remains unsurpassed, and that as a show of animal strength, speed and stamina those victories may never be matched. Whether he would have been remotely bothered, only his fellow horses can know.

Point of Entry: On The Hoof

Naturally, the racing establishment required a horse like Red Rum to be sufficiently romanticised. It was crucial to his marketability that spectators found him as relatable as any human sportsman, and so his ceremonial activities weren't perhaps so ludicrous after all. Though Red Rum might have been nonplussed by turning on the Blackpool Illuminations – and while the giant peddle was almost certainly an extravagant touch – this was what passed as a public relations coup in the late seventies. Horse racing was in dire need of a popularity boost at this point, and Red Rum was just that.

To add to his star power and influence on the British public, Red Rum even had his own underdog story. He had to overcome adversity in the form of pedal osteitis, a painful and incurable disease of the hoof. While this could have seriously impeded his career as a thoroughbred steeplechaser – for obvious reasons – Ginger McCain trained him by the sea in Southport, and would regularly ride him through the water there. This, and the salt spray from the sand, helped to soothe the inflammation of the bone in his hooves, and kept him healthy enough to gallop, leap and hurdle with the best of them.

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Though we shall steer clear of further anthropomorphising Red Rum with praise of his bravery in conquering his illness – this is seventies horse racing we're talking about, not an early round sob story from The X Factor – it should nonetheless be noted that, in a purely physical sense, this makes his three Grand National wins even more impressive. When pedal osteitis reaches an advanced stage, it can lead to lameness, open sores and ultimately euthanasia, so the fact that Red Rum became a legend of horse racing is testament to his training and veterinary care. That Ginger McCain is credited with managing the disease suggests that, whatever the ethics of horse racing, he cared for Red Rum as an animal. It was owing to that care that they vanquished the Grand National, and are often cited as the trainer-horse duo who saved one of the most famous steeplechases in the world.

The Moment: National Hero

While it might seem hard to believe now, the Grand National was on its last legs in the early seventies. Increased admission prices had led to dwindling crowds, while a steady trickle of equine fatalities was starting to put people off the race. There was serious talk of the Grand National being cancelled, and the racing authorities were starting to get desperate. It was then that, in the spring of 1973, Red Rum burst onto the scene, winning what is widely considered to be one of the most exciting races of all time.

Two years older than Red Rum and carrying 23 pounds more in weight, a horse named Crisp led for most of the race. For a while, his closest contender was Grey Sombrero, though once he had fallen at the jump known as The Chair it seemed as if the winner was a foregone conclusion. Still, despite being 15 lengths behind at the final fence and competing against a horse giving the showing of a lifetime, Red Rum rapidly closed the distance on the final straight. In a heartstopping finish, a weary Crisp was beaten at the last by the thunderous run of its only competitor. Speaking to commentator John Rawling later on, his jockey, Richard Pitman, said: "I still dream about that race, of Crisp running so strongly and jumping so fearlessly, and then the sound of Red Rum's hooves as he got closer and closer at the end."

With the contest immediately hailed as one of the greatest in living memory, the racing establishment could breathe a collective sigh of relief. The thanks they felt they owed to Red Rum is epitomised by this Channel 4 Racing retrospective, in which he is quite seriously compared to Jesus Christ in his role as a divine saviour. By capturing the national attention with his box office performance in 1973 – and repeating the feat twice more in the next four years – Red Rum had rescued a race which looked to be in terminal decline. While that may have seemed like a miracle to the racing authorities, one could argue it proved fatal to dozens of horses which have run the National in the time since.

In the very race in which Red Rum made his name, another horse lost his life. Grey Sombrero, who had so fatefully fallen, was euthanised after sustaining a fractured shoulder in the tumble. This perhaps best sums up the double-edged sword of Red Rum's salvation, in that he helped one of the most lethal steeplechases in the country regain its popularity and seep further into the national psyche. Since the death of Grey Sombrero, 34 horses have died running the Grand National. This is why projecting humanity on to Red Rum is so difficult – were he a man, we might well hold him responsible, but as it is he remains a blameless and oblivious horse.

Closing Statements:

"Respect this place / This hallowed ground / A legend here, his rest has found / His feet would fly, our spirits soar / He earned our love for evermore."

– The epitaph on Red Rum's grave at Aintree, and a reminder of the racing authorities' debt of gratitude to him.

Words: @W_F_Magee // Illustration: @Dan_Draws