Racing: Crisp memories of Aintree's best loser: Twenty years on, Red Rum's first National victim remains the moral victor as the field for Saturday's renewal starts to crystallise

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The Independent Online
TWENTY years ago on Saturday, an eight-year-old gelding stabled behind a used-car showroom and trained on Southport beach achieved the victory that launched the greatest of all stories of the greatest of all steeplechases.

Red Rum's defeat of Crisp began a sequence of extraordinary Grand National success. He won again in 1974, ran second in '75 and '76, and by the time of his record third triumph in 1977 he had already established unprecedented equine celebrity.

But on 31 March, 1973, Red Rum arrived at his glorious moment amid divided feelings. He had been heavily backed but only cold-hearted gamblers tossed their hats in the air; to others with an interest not solely financial, the real hero was the horse he had pursued relentlessly for half the race and caught in the dying strides.

Crisp, a giant of 17 hands, dwarfed Red Rum not only physically. Here was an animal who had turned a Festival championship into a procession. Red Rum was a decent handicapper but not, apparently, in the same class.

However, by National Hunt standards, Crisp was not a stayer but a sprinter: a two-mile specialist. Since 1970 he had beaten the best over that distance and smashed a string of course time records. In 1971, in the Two-Mile Champion Chase at Cheltenham, he trounced a high-class field by 25 lengths.

Yet here he was at Aintree, being asked to race more than twice as far over the stiffest set of jumps in the country - and, if that were not enough, under top weight. And, unlike the canny Red Rum, Crisp's jumping style was fearless, brilliance on the edge of disaster; his participation alone was an act of daring. The weights judged Crisp to be 23lb Red Rum's superior but the betting market could not separate them: they started 9-1 joint favourites.

'It is actually quite rare to get on a natural jumper but Crisp was certainly that, able to weigh up a fence and take it practically in a normal stride,' his jockey, Richard Pitman, recalls. 'Before Aintree, I thought about all the thrills I might experience in life but none could match the idea of riding Crisp in the National.'

Crisp had been fifth in the Gold Cup the previous year, appearing not to last three and a quarter miles. To then try four and a half miles might seem illogical but racing theory has it that a sound jumper with a high cruising speed can burn off more ponderous rivals before staying power enters the equation. Much can depend, however, on riding tactics.

'We leaned first towards tucking him in behind, running in the slipstream of other horses in the way an athlete might,' Pitman says. 'But because of his instinct to quicken at a fence we decided that the risk of his jumping into trouble was too great.

'So we opted to make the running, but to conserve Crisp's energy by steadying the pace down.

'That was the theory. In practice he would clear one fence, catch sight of the next bugger and be off. You have to remember that a horse weighs something like half a ton. The only moment you can get a hard-pulling horse to hold back is in the stride with which he lands but once he is back into his running stride you cannot possibly be strong enough.'

Approaching Becher's the first time, Crisp had Grey Sombrero on his outside but cleared the enormous drop with such a prodigious leap that he carried Pitman into a lead that was to grow beyond accurate calculation.

'Quite often, when a horse lands over Becher's, his head actually touches the ground as he tries to balance himself. Crisp flipped over the fence as if it were a hurdle and did not even nod. Crisp jumped so superbly that we gained lengths at every fence. At the Canal Turn, where the course swings to the left at 90 degrees, I felt we took the fence as well as anyone ever had. People said that it was Crisp's last gallop that took him so far ahead but it was really his jumping.'

The Chair, a five-foot six-inch wall of tightly-packed thorn preceded by a yawning ditch, established Crisp's supremacy. 'He took the top out of it but did not falter and as we drew away I heard a gasp from the grandstands as Grey Sombrero fell behind me, and I was left completely on my own.'

'Thereafter it was quite eerie. Usually, when you are riding in the National, there is noise all around you but as went off into the country again I was conscious of silence and stillness. The relics of the cavalry charge were everywhere; great holes in the fences, jockeys leaning against the rails, reflecting on their fate. But very little sound at all.

'Coming up to Becher's, I heard the voice of Michael O'Hehir over the tannoy relaying the commentary to the crowd. I remember hearing him say that Red Rum had come out of the pack and was chasing me.'

On Red Rum, Brian Fletcher, a quiet northerner who had won on Red Alligator in 1968, had already reacted to the challenge.

'I realised when Grey Sombrero fell that I had to take much closer order,' Fletcher says. 'I was about third or fourth at the water and after the second in the back straight I kicked on to try to catch him.'

At Becher's, Fletcher estimated Crisp to be 100 yards in front. Even at Valentine's Brook, with just six fences left, he was still a distant figure.

'At that point I thought I would be second. But I'd never been a person to give up hope and I persevered. I gave my fellow a crack going to the third from home and at the second last I was starting to close the gap.'

The decisive moment was near. 'Crisp was perfect again at Becher's and the Canal,' Pitman says. 'Crossing the Anchor Bridge Road you know you have just two to go and I was still on my own. But then, after the second last, the feeling of power and strength that Crisp had been giving me suddenly evaporated. It happened in an instant, as if a plug had been pulled and all the petrol drained out.

'For the first time then I caught the sound of a pursuer. I heard Red Rum's nostrils flapping, then the clear beat of his hooves on the firm ground.'

Fletcher saw Crisp waver. 'His tail started to go round and that inspired me to dig deeper. I closed the gap with every stride and my only fear was that the post would come too soon. But at the Elbow, Crisp almost ran into the rails. He was a tired horse and he was rolling like a drunk.'

Pitman gave Crisp several cracks with the stick. 'It was possibly a mistake: his legs had gone. When he felt Red Rum's presence he stiffened and tried to quicken, instinctively, but there was nothing left. Red Rum came alongside and beat us in the last couple of strides.'

At that instant, Pitman hit the depths of despair but his mood quickly changed. 'The disappointment gave way to euphoria. Crisp had given me the most exhilarating race of my life and I was fully aware of what he had achieved in conceding so much weight yet failing so narrowly. Not only had he attacked the most fearsome racecourse and conquered it, he had put up one of the finest of all Grand National performances.'

(Photograph omitted)

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