Grand National's a family affair for Donald McCain and Ballabriggs

Donald McCain

JOHN SMITH'S GRAND NATIONAL

Venue:
Aintree
Date:
12-14 April
Grand National:
1615 BST, Saturday
Live BBC TV and website (UK users):
Thursday 1340-1630, Friday 1345-1630, Saturday 1300-1710
BBC Radio:
Big-race commentaries. Preview Thursday 1930-2100

Mixed emotions will accompany Donald McCain as he enters the familiar surroundings of Aintree for the 2012 Grand National.

On the one hand, there's the confidence and excitement associated with being part of the famous race's 'first family', whose list of achievements include sending out last year's winner, Ballabriggs.

However, on the other, he will be without his legendary father, Ginger, trainer of Red Rum, and a towering figure at Aintree over five decades, who died in September.

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The inimitable quotes of Ginger McCain

"There'll be one big piece missing, and that's Dad," he said, "but you wouldn't have to go very far around Aintree to see reminders of him here, there and everywhere, so will he be missing? I don't know."

A specially-commissioned statue of Ginger is to be unveiled by the McCains on the first of the three days of the Grand National Festival, underlining his place in Aintree's rich history.

First there was Red Rum and his unrivalled position in public affections, gained with three wins and two second places in the world's most famous steeplechase during the 1970s.

Then, nearly 20 years later, when many thought Ginger's big-time days were over, he produced one of Aintree's great, romantic stories, when saddling a record-equalling fourth winner in Amberleigh House.

And just 12 months ago, he looked on proudly in the winners' enclosure as his son kept up the family tradition with the success of Ballabriggs.

Speaking at the stables on the Cholmondsley Castle estate, Cheshire, established by Ginger after he moved from a tiny yard famously adjacent to Southport beach, McCain junior said: "It was very, very special.

"You couldn't describe what Aintree meant to Dad, and one of the satisfying things is knowing that he got to see another Grand National winner out of everything he'd put together."

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Watch the closing stages of the 2011 Garnd National

Admitting that not having a Grand National runner would give him "an empty feeling", the trainer is planning a two-pronged assault this year as Ballabriggs is joined by Weird Al.

"It is the greatest test of a thoroughbred racehorse on the planet," he said, in a tone laced with more than a hint of his colourful late father.

"It is not about class. It is about toughness, durability, professionalism and heart. You've your Derbys, you've your Gold Cups, but this is the greatest test."

And nearing the conclusion of his most prolific season to date, with a whopping 140-plus winners, McCain's pride at having two chances of more Aintree glory is plain as we chat.

He said: "We've only ever wanted to be around nice horses as a family.

"We've never spent money on flash cars or flash houses, and things like that, we've wanted to be around nice horses and we're in a position to be there which is very satisfying."

Ballabriggs's 2011 win came in the most controversial of Grand Nationals, in which two horses died, a race that sparked a safety review and some modifications.

McCain believes the changes won't "make a huge amount of difference" to the race, but hopes that "we can draw a line in the sand, and say this is the Grand National, now leave it alone".

Ginger's response would perhaps have been a little more earthy, but Donald's thoughts were delivered with no less zeal. The McCain family's Aintree baton is in safe hands.

Hear Donald McCain on Ginger during 5 live Racing, Thursday 12 April, from 2000 BST.

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