Crisp; the most glorious Grand National defeat

Every Grand National provides a story filled with joy and triumph, and tears of both happiness and frustration, but there can be few if any renewals of the greatest steeplechase in the world that epitomise the fact more than the remarkable 1973 race in which the legendary Australian chaser Crisp went down to the most agonising defeat to a certain Red Rum.

The first Grand National in colour

There are so many reasons that the 1973 race lives long in the memory. For television viewers, it was the first time they could watch the race in colour. Seeing the race in all its glory brought the marathon cavalry charge and its massive 30 fences very much to life. It gave the race a much needed boost at a time when its popularity had been on the wane, and its financial viability was being called into question.

Emergence of a sporting legend

As the runners gathered down at the start on that April day, few people could have imagined that among the field of robust staying chasers a horse who started out as a five-furlong sprinter would take his first step on the road to becoming one of Britain’s greatest ever sporting heroes. Locally-trained Red Rum was an up-and-coming eight-year-old, trained by ‘Ginger’ McCain at his Southport stables, located in the backyard of his second-hand car showroom.

The Quorom gelding was saddled with 10st 5lb and ridden by Brian Fletcher, (who had won the ’72 renewal on Red Alligator), but the 12-stone top weight that year was shared jointly by the dual Cheltenham Gold Cup winner L’Escargot, and Crisp, the smart Australian two-mile chaser. Stabled in Lambourn with the great Fred Winter, Crisp had already shown his reputation as the best chaser Down Under to be no idle boast. While few doubted his class, there was a very big question mark over his stamina for the Grand National as he was being asked to race more than twice the distance he usually tackled.

Breathtaking front-running from Aussie star

Pitman clearly had no stamina doubts though and raced close to the pace from the start as his mount immediately took to the challenge of the unique spruce fences. He took over from Grey Sombrero after Becher’s Brook on the first circuit and began to put daylight between himself and his pursuers. At halfway, as they jumped The Chair, Crisp was already around 20 lengths clear and continued to gallop powerfully away from the stands with a circuit to run. The television cameras struggled to keep the rest of the field in vision as the Australian star pulled as far as 30 lengths clear jumping the big ditch for the second time.

“I can’t remember a horse so far clear in the Grand National at this stage,” said Julian Wilson as Crisp jumped the 19th fence.

Only two in view

By the time they headed away from Valentines for the final time the only other horse within shouting distance was local hero Red Rum, but he was still 25 lengths behind the leader. He in turn had gone around 20 lengths clear of the rest. After crossing the Melling Road with the third last fence behind them, Crisp was still galloping on powerfully with Red Rum doing his best to whittle away the yawning gap between himself and the leader.

“Two fences left to jump in the 1973 National,” declared the peerless BBC commentator Peter O’Sullevan, “and this great Australian chaser Crisp, with 12 stones on his back, and 10st 5lb on the back of Red Rum who’s chasing him, and they look to have it absolutely to themselves.”

Petrol gauge starts to flicker

Crisp, jumped two out like a fresh horse and was still around 15 lengths clear at the final fence as Red Rum began to stage a late charge. Pitman decided to shake his mount up to maintain the momentum but that decision would later come back to haunt him.

“Crisp … he’s just wandering off a straight line; he’s beginning to lose concentration; he’s been out there on his own for so long,” noted O’Sullevan, as the longtime leader reached The Elbow with a furlong to run. But he was clearly running out of gas.

Red Rum, delivered down the centre of the track by Fletcher, was staying-on powerfully while Crisp, conceding a massive 23lbs in weight, was staggering through the final 150 yards like a Friday night drunk. In the last 50 yards Red Rum drew alongside and forged past to record one of the most famous of all Grand National victories, breaking the heart of Crisp who went down to the bravest of all defeats.

Amazing feat in defeat

Time would show that against what would prove to be the greatest Grand National horse in history – Red Rum went on to win again in 1974, was second in both 1975 and ’76, then famously landed his third Grand National victory at the age of 12 in 1977 – the task of conceding so much weight to such a great horse was a near-impossible one.

Crisp surely goes down as one of the greatest ever Grand National horses, despite never even winning the race.

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