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Ginger McCain obituary 20/09/2011
Sean Magee
One of racing's great characters, he trained the Grand National legend Red Rum

Donald "Ginger" McCain, who has died at the age of 80 after a short illness, established a permanent place in racing history as trainer of Red Rum, the only horse to have won the Grand National three times. The unlikely tale of how a horse with dodgy legs came into the care of a man who combined racehorse training with a secondhand car business – the stables were tucked behind the car showroom on a busy street in Southport, on the Lancashire coast – is one of the sport's most romantic stories.

In the early 1970s, McCain, then a trainer on a very small scale, used to drive the elderly local businessman Noel le Mare to the Prince of Wales hotel for the dinner-dance every Saturday, and they struck up a friendship. Le Mare was desperate to own a Grand National winner, and put a few horses in training with McCain. After mistakenly withdrawing Le Mare's horse Glenkiln from the 1972 National, McCain paid 6,000 guineas at Doncaster sales in August that year for a seven-year-old gelding. He had endured a tough racing schedule from his two-year-old days onwards and had already been through the hands of four trainers.

Red Rum had won on the flat as well as over fences and hurdles, but his potential was severely compromised by his suffering from pedalosteitis, a disease of the hoof. However, McCain exercised his string on the vast Southport sands, and galloping through seawater worked wonders on Red Rum's feet.

The horse started joint-favourite for the 1973 Grand National, along with the brilliant Australian horse Crisp, who carried top weight and conceded 23lb to Red Rum. In an extraordinary contest, Crisp built up a gigantic lead, and with half a mile to go Red Rum was in remote pursuit. Crisp still had a long lead at the final fence, but his stride shortened dramatically on the run-in and Red Rum caught him a few yards from the winning post to win by three-quarters of a length, demolishing the course record in the process.

Playing party-pooper to one of the greatest Grand National performances did not endear Red Rum – nor his ebullient trainer – to every racing enthusiast, but he returned to Liverpool a year later and, this time carrying top weight himself, won again, beating dual Cheltenham Gold Cup winner L'Escargot to become the first dual National winner since 1936.

Red Rum finished runner-up in the next two Grand Nationals – to L'Escargot in 1975 and Rag Trade in 1976 – and by then his trainer was well established as one of the great characters of the sport. His verbal jousting with David Coleman and later Des Lynam during the BBC television coverage became a traditional part of Grand National day.

When Red Rum lined up for his fifth consecutive National in 1977, no horse had ever won the race three times, but McCain's now 12-year-old won with ease, prompting commentator Peter O'Sullevan's famous call: "It's hats off and a tremendous reception – you've never heard one like it at Liverpool."

In 1978 an injury a few days before the race ruled Red Rum out of a sixth National run and he was retired, but continued in the public eye as the first racehorse to turn his celebrity to commercial use, opening betting shops and making regular public appearances.

McCain was born in Southport and first attended the Grand Natonal, 15 miles away at Aintree, at the age of nine. "To a young boy," he wrote in his 2005 autobiography My Colourful Life, "it seemed like the whole world had turned up."

His earliest experience with horses came though driving horse-drawn floats for a local butcher, and, after national service, he started with trainer Frank Speakman in Cheshire. While working for a car hire company in Birkdale, he found himself driving the likes of Frank Sinatra, Norman Wisdom and Margaret Rutherford – and on one occasion a fully grown lion, who sat salivating menacingly in the back of the car while McCain drove the King of the Jungle and his handler from Southport to London.

McCain took out a licence to train racehorses as a "permit holder" – that is, a licence confined to horses owned by the trainer's immediate family – in February 1953, but had to wait until 1965 to send out his first winner, San Lorenzo, in a steeplechase at Liverpool. He took out a full licence in 1967. Surprisingly, the extraordinary achievements of Red Rum did not lead to an influx of new owners with expensively bred horses into the McCain yard, and helooked destined to be remembered for just the one horse.

But having moved his training operation from Southport to the Cholmondeley estate in Cheshire in 1990, he sent out his fourth Grand National winner, Amberleigh House, in 2004, a training feat matched only by Fred Rimell. The family's success continued this year, when Ginger's son Donald Jr trained the winner, Ballabriggs.

Ginger was well known for speaking his mind, even if some of his attitudes appeared to be of the unreconstructed caveman variety. One of the favourites for the 2005 contest was Forest Gunner, ridden by trainer's wife Carrie Ford. When McCain was asked about her chances, he replied: "Carrie is a grand lass, but she's a broodmare now, and having kids does not get you fit to ride in Grand Nationals." Outrage followed, but McCain was soon swathed again in the public affection which he so relished.

In addition to Donald, he is survived by his wife Beryl and daughter Joanne.

• Donald "Ginger" McCain, racehorse trainer, born 21 September 1930; died 19 September 2011