The old gentleman is 91. He sits close to the big coal fire, his shirt brilliant white, his smoking jacket a rich plum velvet. The heavy curtains are closed against the thin Lancashire sun and his eyes are alight with pleasure. "Hey, watch him now," he says, looking round to make sure everybody is paying attention. "Here's my old hoss now!"
The videotape he is running for his guests is almost five years old. It shows the Grand National Steeplechase at Aintree, Liverpool, England, March 31, 1973, the 135th running of the most grueling test of a jumping horse in the world: 4 miles and 856 yards over 30 fences that include The Chair, a 6-foot open ditch with a 5'2" fence following it, Becher's Brook, with the treacherous water beyond the jump, as well as the gut-wrenching Canal Turn where the jockeys must change direction as they hit the turf. As a rough statistic, for every horse that has finished the course over the years, two have fallen.
Almost two-thirds of the way into this 1973 film, though, there seems to be little drama left in the race. A huge dark brown Australian 'chaser called Crisp is almost alone on the screen as the 19th jump comes up. "I can't remember a horse so far ahead in the National at this stage," the commentator yells. The old man in the fireside chair hugs his knees impatiently. "You wait, son, you wait," he murmurs to the TV man.
Now coming into the picture but barely in contention, it seems, is a bay horse that looks pony-sized compared to Crisp. At the Canal Turn, six jumps from home, he is fully 20 lengths behind the leader. With three jumps left he has closed somewhat. At the last jump, with only 250 yards of the home stretch to race, there is still a 15-length gap. "Watch now!" the old man commands his guests. "Watch the legs on that big hoss!"
They seem to splay, rubberize, the jockey desperately trying to hold the big horse on line. And 40 yards from home the little bay catches him.
"That's my hoss, that is!" the old man tells us triumphantly. "That's Red Rum!" When the tape was made there were no pubs in England called the Red Rum or hotels where you could drink at Rummie's Bar. There are at least three of the former now and one of the latter. There was no sign of a Dutch production unit arriving to make a film called Cred Crum. Neither was there the need to hire secretarial help for Red Rum's fan mail, nor a rose named after him. There were no Red Rum key rings, buttons, T shirts, birthday and Christmas cards. Nor was there the opportunity to subscribe toward a life-sized statue of the horse. All these things have come to pass. In the last five years Red Rum has become the object of the kind of adulation that in England is usually reserved for a very few soccer players. The fervor of the sentimental cult Red Rum has engendered will reach a peak on the eve of the 1978 National, which the old hero, now 13 years old, will be contesting on April 1, for the sixth time, as—almost unbelievably—a 7-to-1 favorite.
In 1973, however, Red Rum's win was hardly the most popular in the history of the race. Public feeling, and a lot of the public's money, had been with Crisp, carrying 168 pounds to Red Rum's 145, and with Richard Pitman, Crisp's well-liked jockey. And even though Red Rum had set a track record of 9:01.9, the acclaim was no more than tepid. At the time, however, the English were not aware that a fairy tale with three Cinderellas was unfolding.
The first Cinderella was the old gentleman with the videotape, Noel Le Mare, the owner of Red Rum, though for him the fairy godmother waved her wand a considerable time ago. Now, in his big house at Birkdale, 18 miles from Liverpool, where the British Open is sometimes held, the silver gleams and the carpets glow richly. His parents were penniless missionaries in India who came home to England without even the $100 their son needed to become an apprentice engineer. So at 14 years of age he shipped aboard a trawler. Somehow he taught himself engineering, though he was a merchant seaman until after World War I, when he borrowed $400 for a quarter share in a horse-and-cart construction company. This eventually became Norwest Construction, which was worth $10 million when Le Mare sold out and retired. He was into his 60s before he owned a racehorse.
"Alex Kirkpatrick trained that one for me," he says. "Old Alex. He's with the Lord now...."
The company looks suitably solemn. He gazes about quizzically. "And that means," he adds, "that he's getting a bloody good lunch right now." He turns to the videotape machine again.