Review of Ginger McCain, My Colourful Life: from Red to Amber. London: Headline Book Publishing, 2005, 2006, 2014.
Review by Anastasija Ropa
In this lively autobiography, Ginger McCain, a trainer of racehorses, best-known as the trainer who has won the Grand National four times, tells of his experience of horses on and off the racetrack over more than half a century. Not only is Ginger McCain a man who made history, having trained Red Rum, a three-time Grand National winner and a national sporting hero, but he also lived through a period of change, as the jockeys and trainers of the post-war Britain retired to give place to the men – and women – of today’s racing world. Much of the book, is, appropriately, about Red Rum, who, the author declares, “changed the course of my life as no man or woman or child could ever do.” Arguably, Red Rum influenced the lives of many other people, both those who were directly involved with the horse and the countless racing enthusiasts, those who place their bets at the Grand National, or simply watch the great race. Indeed, Ginger and Red Rum had contributed to saving the Grand National when the race undergoing a rocky patch in the 1970s and was nearly closed.
Ginger’s involvement with horses – and horse people – is no less remarkable than the Red Rum phenomenon. It began at the time when horses were still part of daily life rather than a luxury or an oddity. The day-to-day reality of working horses and the care the drivers took of the animals laid the foundation of Ginger’s respect and care of his race horses.
Throughout the book, Ginger outlines his position on several issues that make today’s British racing world very different from that of the previous century. Some of his statements may be hard to accept for a reader raised in the age of tolerance, animal rights and globalisation. Thus, when Ginger describes the treatments applied in an attempt to improve the condition of lame racehorses – which he applied himself as a cure or prophylaxis to some of his horses – one is vividly reminded of medieval hippiatric treatises. For instance, a treatment colloquially known as a “blister” meant clipping the problem leg and rubbing a red mercury blister into it, then bandaging the leg for six weeks. Another common remedy was bar-firing the legs (illegal in the UK, bar-firing is still used in other countries). Doubtless, such medicines have no place in modern veterinary, yet, as Ginger claims, they worked. Even if we may not want to reintroduce these very risky treatments, Ginger’s experience may lead us to reconsider our views on the efficiency of veterinary medicine in the past.
At other points, Ginger’s position is full of contradictions. On the technical side of racing, he deplores the fact the jockeys nowadays have shorter stirrups, making it impossible to apply the leg when racing – but he also claims the new regulations on using the whip are do not take into consideration individual peculiarities. While conceding that he does not condone beating a horse that has already lost the race, he believes that some horses would be stimulated by harsher application of the whip: “It has to be an effective way of encouraging a horse to dig deeper within himself.” Yet he remembers the first Grand National won by Red Rum and the state in which the horse, ridden by Tommy Stack, arrived at the finish, in a somewhat apologetic tone. “Red Rum was striped on both flanks – he wasn’t just a sergeant, he was a top sergeant.”
At many occasions throughout the book, Ginger expresses his attitude to women in the racing sport, opening him to possible accusations of chauvinism. Indeed, should women be excluded from racing just because the weighting room used to be “was a man’s domain, like a fighter’s gym”, and now it “smells like a pool’s parlour”? Ginger may be excused, though, when he explains that “in the years after the war most of the jockeys were senior riders who’d been in the forces, like Brian Marshall, Dave Dick and Dick Francis”, implying that racing is, in fact, a dangerous and cruel sport and that women should not risk their necks on the racecourse.
Among Ginger’s less controversial remarks are his observations on the management and practice of training. He compares the situation in his early years, when few trainers would have as many as forty horses in the yard, to the later developments, when many yards have expanded to include over a hundred horses, so that a trainer cannot possibly pay attention to all animals and must rely on assistants. Again, Ginger’s attitude may seem old-fashioned, but he has a point: quantity does not always lead to quality. A horse like Red Rum, who had chronic leg problem prior to arriving on Ginger’s yard in Southport, and who showed lack-lustre performance over the less challenging jumps would have a high chance of being overlooked at one of the bigger yards. Whether this is outweighed by the availability of better facilities – something that was not available in the earlier post-war yards – is a question Ginger does not countenance.
In all, My Colourful Life is not a critically balanced study; it is a subjective account of an individual trainer, tinted with his personality and opinions. Not everything of what the author says is to be taken at face value, and, with characteristic wit, Ginger is prone to undermine many of his own statements. However, the book captures the atmosphere of the racing world it portrays and sketches vivid images of the jockeys, trainers and owners who inhabited it: Red Rum’s owner Mr Le Mare (“the Guv’nor”), the jockeys Tommy Stack, Brian Fletcher, Jonjo O’Neill and Jackie Grainger, the trainer Bobby Renton, and many others. To counterbalance Ginger’s views, the book includes many testimonies written by other people, including his wife and his business partners. Complete with photographs of Red Rum and other horses with which Ginger McCain was involved, the book will be captivating reading for all who are into horses and history.