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Agonising Crisp defeat still rankles with Pitman

Consider the greatest Grand National performance by a horse in the last 50 years. Red Rum’s third victory? Aldaniti’s triumph for Bob Champion? Or none of the above.

Just as Tied Cottage is considered the unluckiest loser of the Cheltenham Gold Cup and Devon Loch most unfortunate in the Grand National, the best performance was not even a winning one.

It would take a heart of stone not to weep for Crisp after the 1973 Grand National.

Crisp’s uniquely spectacular, bold-jumping, front-running display under top weight of 12st was arguably the best Grand National performance in the last half century.

The Australian-bred landed the two-mile Champion Chase two years earlier, a fact largely lost in the magnitude of the most agonising National of them all.

He was brilliantly trained by Fred Winter and was outstanding at Cheltenham, when scoring by 25 lengths after an awesome display under the late, great Paul Kelleway.

Crisp also won the Yellow Pages Pattern Chase in 1972, formerly known as the Racing Post Chase and now Coral Handicap Chase at Kempton.

He put up the performance of a champion that day when carrying 12st and beating The Dikler, who received 6lb. Forget the mathematics, it was his style of running, blitzing rivals from the front, that made him so beloved.

A year later, when Winter was asked why he was running Crisp in the Grand National when almost everyone thought he was a pure two-mile chaser, he replied that, although Crisp was carrying top-weight, “a class horse has a cruising speed, regardless of the distance”.

Former BBC TV racing presenter Richard Pitman was Crisp’s National partner.

He said: “He had a flamboyant way about him that really caught people’s imagination.

“Fred and I had talked about our tactics long and hard. The obvious thing would be to try to settle him. But he was so exuberant. Once Crisp was committed to a jump, he would set himself alight. My only chance to settle him would be on his landing stride. But he was never running away. He was always very measured.”

By Becher’s Brook on the second circuit, Pitman heard commentator Michael O’Hehir saying Crisp was 25 lengths clear.

“Crisp still felt so strong, so full of running. But it was always in the back of my mind that a horse that does so much on the bridle can empty very quickly,” he said.

“But then it happened, after the second-last,” Pitman added. “Just the way I had feared. It all fell apart. All of a sudden, his strength was gone. And on the firm ground I could hear the rattle of hooves.”

The Princess Royal and Richard Pitman at the Cheltenham Festival in 2016
The Princess Royal and Richard Pitman at the Cheltenham Festival in 2016 (David Davies/PA)

And then Pitman made what he considers a “schoolboy error”. He picked up the whip and tried to offer some encouragement – but in one fatal moment the dream was gone. Crisp rolled left away from the whip and off a true line.

“He lost all momentum. I had to stop riding to get him round the Elbow. And here was Red Rum, finishing like a train. Poor old Crisp was out on his feet,” said Pitman.

Crisp slowed to a walk on the run-in and Red Rum, receiving 23lb, caught him and won by three-quarters of a length in record time, with L’Escargot a distant third. Of course Ginger McCain’s charge would then go on to create history by winning the race twice more, further underlying Crisp’s performance.

Pitman did not win the race, but this one quote epitomises what a gracious, honest and generous man he is.

“The horse was born too soon. He deserved to have (John) Francome on board,” he said.

It was Red Rum’s day, but Crisp’s immortality in defeat will make this, for most people, the most gripping National of all.

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