A few minutes ago," intoned the newscaster in the heavy, serious manner the BBC reserves for disasters, "after a day of gloomier and gloomier predictions...." He allowed us a moment to brace ourselves, the family friend deputed to break the worst kind of news. Then he gave it to us the straight way, the best way. Red Rum (SI, March 27), the greatest steeplechaser in the world, had been withdrawn from the Grand National at Aintree less than 20 hours before the start.
That was last Friday evening, the end of a bad five days for England, though it was toughest of all for London, where a newspaper distributors' strike meant there were no morning dailies. The two evening papers, the News and the Standard, were circulating, but they were not much help. On Friday afternoon you felt fine if you were a Standard reader, RED RUM WILL RUN—OFFICIAL, exulted the paper. It quoted Rum's vet, Ted Greenway, as saying that the horse looked well and "seemed his normal self." On the way home from work, though, just to make sure, you might have picked up a News and had your appetite for dinner spoiled. ODDS ON HE'S OUT, mourned the headline, and by now there was no need to specify who "he" was. Like the Standard, the News quoted Greenway, who seemed to have changed his mind: "I don't fancy his chances. He looked distressed when he returned to the stables."
England's sports fans had been thoroughly confused since the Daily Mail scooped the rest of Fleet Street with a front-page story the Monday before the race saying that the great 13-year-old, which was going for his fourth National win, had injured a foot galloping on the sands at Southport, near Liverpool. There were cynics who saw the story as a stunt by the Mail, which had an exclusive contract with Red Rum's jockey. Tommy Stack, and for a while they seemed to be right. By midweek, reports were more encouraging. The injury was merely a bruise, it seemed. There was a 95% chance that the horse would run. English racing fans breathed easy again, and the mailman staggered to Trainer Ginger McCain's tiny stable yard behind the used-car lot with sacks of get-well cards.
The final test would be a six-furlong gallop on the National course on Friday morning. Meanwhile, the bookies took Red Rum out of the betting—the horse had been a 7-to-1 favorite—then reinstated him at 10 to 1 on a "with-a-run" basis, meaning that stakes money would be returned if he dropped out. There was no such luck, though, for bettors who had staked $2 million on him before the injury. The bookies kept that.
Mysteriously, last Friday, the news was slow to break on the outcome of the morning workout, and the cynics were shaking their heads again. An announcement would be made, it seemed, as late as noon Saturday, little more than three hours before the race, and it was clear who had most to gain from all this tardiness: the giant bookmaking firm of Ladbroke's, which controls about one-seventh of the British betting industry. Ladbroke's now sponsors the National. With Red Rum—or even the possibility of Red Rum running—Ladbroke's hoped for an attendance of 75,000 at Aintree. Without him it might be cut by a third, possibly more.
By Friday evening the speculation had been reduced to blind hope. The best summing up of the nation's mood came in a lugubrious song, reminiscent of the Victorian music halls, which a young man improvised on early evening television: Please Let Rummy Run Tomorrow, Ginger.
The dolorous news finally came at 8:30 p.m. At the Adelphi Hotel in Liverpool, the traditional eve-of-race gathering place of racing types, the man from the London Sun put down his drink. "That's blown my bloody evening," he said, hastening off to rewrite his piece for next morning. An Irishman reacted in a way that had become increasingly common through the week. "Bloody right," he said. "It was a crying shame to have run that old horse, anyway. It's money, money, money. It's been that all the time."
That day another sour note had been sounded. Noel Le Mare, the 91-year-old owner of Red Rum, who had fallen and injured his pelvis the previous weekend and was now in a wheelchair, suddenly announced that he would give the horse to Mrs. Sandra Miles, who, as Red Rum's stable girl, had nursed him through the pedalosteitis that had threatened to finish his racing career as an 8-year-old and had quit her job and the sport out of unhappiness when the horse was sold to Le Mare.
"A load of rubbish," said McCain when he heard the news. "My father is an old man," said Le Mare's daughter, who refused to let reporters speak with him on Friday. "I am not saying he is failing in any way but there has been some confusion."
But at least one more public appearance awaited Red Rum. On Saturday morning at Aintree, under black skies and in lashing rain, he led the runners to the start, riderless because the stewards had forbidden his stable lad to get in the saddle. The rear hind fetlock, which had been bruised by a stone on Southport Beach, did not hamper his gait. Returning alone, he bucked and pranced like a circus horse. Had he run and won, the bookies stood to lose $14 million. As it was, there were conflicting shouts. "Let him run! Let him run!" roared one faction. But another yelled. "Take him home!"
And, ah yes, then followed the Grand National of 1978, which, paradoxically, was never for a moment the anticlimax predicted for close on 60,000 spectators: five of the 15 finishers (from 37 starters) were jammed into less than three lengths as they passed the post. The winner, by about half a length over Sebastian, was Lucius, a 14-to-1 shot. You can already place a bet on Lucius at 20 to 1 for next year's National. Hail Lucius. Farewell Red Rum.