The Grand National victories of Amberleigh House and Ballabriggs embodied the McCain family’s mastery of Aintree.
When Amberleigh House rolled back the years in 2004, Ginger McCain’s name was still on the licence – although by then, the man who had brought the world the remarkable story of Red Rum more than a quarter of a century earlier was very much in collaboration with his son Donald.
McCain junior proved the value of his unique apprenticeship again by preparing Ballabriggs to lead almost throughout and win the great race by two and a quarter lengths in 2011.
In a throwback to Red Rum – a Flat-bred five-furlong winner with no evident right to jump round 30 of the world’s biggest fences and stay four and a half miles, five times – Amberleigh House had spurious paper credentials for the mission ahead.
McCain senior knew a National horse when he saw one, though, and his son took up the tale.
“That was really special – because at the time, we must have trained about six winners that season,” he said.
“Dad came back from Punchestown and said ‘I’ve seen a National horse’.”
Amberleigh House was already eight, with his share of miles on the clock from 35 Irish races – all at what appeared to be the wrong distance.
Even Ginger’s nearest and dearest needed some convincing.
“At the time, he was doing his running at between two and two and a half miles – and that was it,” added McCain.
“So I said ‘really?! He said ‘Yes, that’s a National horse’.
“So they bought him, and that was the one chance we had at a big day with a good horse.”
Amberleigh House vindicated Ginger several times, yet it was a tortuous road to his glory day at the age of 12.
On his first visit to Aintree, he was barged over by the loose Paddy’s Return in the controversially gruelling National won by Red Marauder in the foot-and-mouth year of 2001 – leaving the McCains with only the most anxious of equine-hospital vigils to show for their endeavour.
McCain said: “He was in the air at the Canal Turn as Paddy’s Return hit him sideways on, and (jockey) Warren Marston was underneath the fence being dragged out by his feet.
“That night, Amberleigh House had an artery that had been cut in his hind leg, and we were at the veterinary hospital in Chester at two o’clock in the morning with him, trying to stop the bleeding.
“I think he still jumped round that day.
“It’s a longer road (to a National win) than you think…”
Still Amberleigh House had not completed more than two and a half miles in any race.
He did so the following November, for a 33-1 victory in the Becher Chase, but there was to be no National five months later for a horse rated too low.
Two Becher Chase runner-up spots then sandwiched third place in the 2003 National, under new jockey Graham Lee, for an Aintree specialist who was in danger too of joining the eternal bridesmaid category.
“He was third in the National, and I was a little bit disconsolate to be honest,” said McCain.
“I thought that was our chance, he was (already) 11 years old – third in the National, wonderful, but that’s his chance gone.
“We got home, and the old man said to me ‘Well, you know what you’ve got to do, don’t you?’
“I said ‘what’s that?’ He said ‘You’ve got to improve him 10lb.’ This was with an 11, coming up 12-year-old.”
Orders for the following season had nonetheless been dispatched.
“He went to the Becher Chase and got beat a short-head by Clan Royal – and it was getting beaten in the Becher Chase that day that won him the Grand National.
“They were upsides from the second-last that day, and he just got outstayed from the last to the line.
“So, when he ran in the National, generally the view was ‘if at all possible, don’t get there till the Elbow’. That’s because I couldn’t believe he’d got beat in a Becher Chase.
“He was always a slightly doubtful stayer, but his jumping would always keep him in it. It was exceptional.”
Amberleigh House’s prep run in Doncaster’s Grimthorpe Chase did not please everyone, but McCain saw enough to retain confidence – and he was proved right.
“That’s all it was about, getting the racing in, to get him to the big day.
“That’s what was drilled into me, and that’s what we did – it was only ever about one day a season.
“Pure and simple, and everything was geared around that.”
Amberleigh House duly repelled old rival Clan Royal by three lengths, sending Aintree into a mad mix of McCain-themed delirium and nostalgia.
Back at the yard – in rural Cheshire, rather than the Red Rum days of Southport – the tested formula was soon being applied to handsome new recruit Ballabriggs.
McCain said: “He was a completely different route – because he arrived in the yard unraced, completely untried.
“But he was the most beautiful horse you’ll see – a great,big, gorgeous horse.
“You could just stand in the box and gaze at him.”
Patience was key again.
It was not until 2010 that Ballabriggs – “immature, a great big beast of a horse” – began to repay the nurture, defying top weight at the Cheltenham Festival and confirming that the following year it would be all about the Grand National again.
“All through that season, but especially after that day, that was it – there was only ever one target, and that was Aintree,” said McCain.
There was still a nagging stamina doubt – but on the day that mattered above all Ballabriggs was having none of it, and his trainer’s worry grew with every exuberant stride under jockey Jason Maguire that he would not see out the trip.
“Yes, 100 per cent – this wasn’t the plan at all.
“The plan had been to take your time a bit, and to be arriving there at the Elbow, or (at least) after the last.
“But you could see what was happening – he was loving the place.
“The ground was quickish, the weather was absolutely roasting, and he took to the place so well, the way he attacked the first five fences, he was nearly in front all the way from there.
“There was nothing you could do apart from sit on him and let him keep jumping, and try to keep filling him up.
“He was just trying to eat his fences. Crossing the Melling Road, I thought ‘Oh no, he’s not going to get home from here – but what a fantastic effort, what a pleasure to watch, to be involved in!'”
Ballabriggs had everything under control, of course – but as his exertions briefly told post-race, McCain had new priorities to make sure the winner did not become dehydrated.
“The first thing was to manage the horse – which took our mind off everything – and we never got to go back in the winner’s enclosure,” he said.
“That was a bit sad, but the horse comes first.”
He did have time to collect his trainer’s award, but only after politely presenting his right to enter the winner’s enclosure first.
“At the little gate by the side of the parade ring, I said to the gentleman on it ‘Can I just get through, boss, please?’.
“He said ‘sorry, nobody’s allowed in’. I said ‘but, I’ve just won a Grand National!’. He saw it was me, and let me through.”
It was only over time afterwards that McCain appreciated the personal importance ever more – especially coming as it did with his father, the man who had trodden the Aintree path for so long, still there to share the moment.
“It’s more the time afterwards, driving home, the satisfaction of a job well done,” he said.
“People put a lot of faith in you, training horses – the likes of (owner) Trevor Hemmings, the number of horses he has in training every year, and how much the race means to him – that’s the special part, that you’re making other people’s dreams come true as well really.
“The bit that I wasn’t quite ready for, that I didn’t know about at the time, was it was that September the old man died.
“I was a bit naive – he wasn’t very well, but I didn’t quite realise how bad he was at the time. So in hindsight, it’s obviously a thousand times better it happened that year than a year later.”