Australia’s forgotten sporting hero: the immortal Crisp

Andrew Hawkins Columnist

By , Andrew Hawkins is a Roar Expert

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    Black Caviar - when you didn't need the form guide. (Image: Bronwen Healy / Bronwen Healy Photography)

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    Last Thursday night saw 10 new inductees welcomed into the Australian Racing Hall of Fame, with horses, jockeys, trainers and associates (better described as anyone who does not belong to the other three categories) among those included.

    Most attention was on Black Caviar, who became just the second horse to be inducted into the Hall of Fame while still racing. The first was “the mare of the world” Sunline, who was inducted in 2002 before her final spring campaign.

    The question over whether it was the right time to award the honour to Black Caviar is a matter of great debate, and is worthy of its own article.

    However, given the proximity to her record-breaking Lightning Stakes win, the spotlight well and truly shone upon the champion mare, with the other nine inductees not receiving the attention they deserved.

    In addition to Black Caviar, inductees included Melbourne Cup winner Delta, the immortal sire Star Kingdom, Golden Slipper-winning trainer Bruce McLachlan, champion 1960s apprentice Geoff Lane, top 1920s jockey Hughie Cairns, Sydney farrier Albert O’Cass, South Australian bloodstock agent and administrator David Coles and totalisator inventor Sir George Julius.

    All deserved recognition for their contributions to the racing industry. For me, however, the 10th and final inductee particularly stood out. He was the great Australian steeplechaser Crisp.

    Crisp last raced in November 1973, four days after Gala Supreme won the Melbourne Cup. And it was another 17 years before I entered the world. Nevertheless, I still remember finding out the story of Crisp for the first time.

    It surprised me that it wasn’t well known, for his achievements were quite remarkable.

    I’d hoped, with his induction into the Hall of Fame last week, his story would be told. And some news outlets did choose to focus on Crisp, most notably The Australian. Still, it is a tale that intrigues me.

    To me, Crisp – also known as the Black Kangaroo – is Australia’s forgotten sporting hero.

    Crisp was bred and raced by Sir Chester Manifold, one of racing’s most prominent administrators. He served 11 years as chairman of the Victoria Racing Club (VRC), from 1951 to 1962, and was also the first chairman of the Totalisator Agency Board – our modern TAB – in Victoria.

    Manifold was a successful owner and breeder, with Crisp his best galloper.

    Foaled in 1963, Crisp was by Rose Argent – a black type winner in the United Kingdom – out of the well-bred mare Wheat Germ.

    His sire won at an average distance of just 1400m, so obviously he was an exception from the start. Trained by Des Judd, he showed very little on the flat at two and three and his future was in doubt.

    However, in 1968, he won five races over the hurdles, before he was switched to the bigger fences as a steeplechaser. Battling the handicapper, he managed to win the Hiskens Steeplechase at Moonee Valley two years in a row, winning by 20 lengths under 70kg in 1969 before winning by 12 lengths under 76.5kg in 1970.

    By this time, the handicapper had the better of Crisp and so it was decided to give the Black Kangaroo his opportunity on the National Hunt scene in England, where (arguably) jumps racing is bigger than flat racing.

    Transferred to Fred Winter, but still owned by his Australian connections, Crisp made an impact straight away.

    His first major victory was the the 1971 Cheltenham Festival when he won what is now the Queen Mother Champion Chase, for the best two mile chasers around. He demolished his opposition, racing away for a 25 length victory.

    The following year, he was entered for Cheltenham’s premier race, the Cheltenham Gold Cup over a distance of 3 miles 2 1/2 furlongs (approximately 5300m). However, he seemed to find the distance too far, grinding home for fifth behind Glencaraig Lady.

    Incredibly, the following season, the plan was to step Crisp up in distance, with the Grand National the target.

    The Grand National is one of the world’s most arduous races. Run at Aintree, just outside Liverpool, it is a gruelling four miles and four furlongs (approximately 7250m) taking in two laps of the infamous National Course.

    It is the Melbourne Cup of the National Hunt season, run under handicap conditions, with the Cheltenham Gold Cup the Cox Plate equivalent.

    Racing doyen Max Presnell once described Aintree as “the most demanding track in the world for horse and rider, with obstacles that loom like Mount Everest. Horses are at some points required to turn and twist in mid-air or lose vital ground. Plus there’s the odd water jump or ”brook”, which is a leap that has everything bar a hungry crocodile at the bottom.”

    Many of these obstacles are notorious.

    There’s Becher’s Brook, a “drop jump” where the landing side is lower than the take-offside, forcing the horses to literally drop; The Chair, which is the reverse of Becher’s Brook in that the ground on the landing side is higher than the take-offside; the Canal Turn, where riders have to make a 90 degree turn as soon as the fence has been jumped; and Foinavon, named after the winner of the 1967 Grand National who won in a similar fashion to Steven Bradbury after most of the field fell at the fence now named in his honour.

    To describe Crisp’s performance as extraordinary is quite simply a devastating understatement. He was brutal, bold and brave. And yet, he didn’t win.

    Yet it was as good a run, if not significantly better, than any of his wins.

    The sheer brilliance of the run only becomes clear once the context of the run is understood.

    Crisp was allotted 12st (76kg), a weight which is now forbidden. These days, the topweight is generally given 11st 10lb (about 74.5kg).

    By the time the field had reached the fence after Becher’s Brook the first time (the seventh of 30 fences), Crisp had assumed a front running role.

    And throughout the first circuit, his lead grew larger and larger. When they reached The Chair (marking the first lap completed), the nearest galloper to Crisp – a grey named Grey Sombrero – fell fatally, leaving the Black Kangaroo the best part of 30 lengths clear of the field.

    It was at Becher’s Brook the second time around that the race began in earnest, as out of the pack came the lone challenger – Red Rum, one of racing’s finest chasers ever. In 1973, his reputation was nowhere near what it would become, and he carried 10st 5lb (about 65.75kg) – almost nine kilograms below Crisp.

    Slowly, Red Rum wore down Crisp. Forget the other 38 runners – this was a two horse war.

    Two flights from home, Crisp looked certain to record a historic victory for Australia in the Grand National. He still held a 15 length margin on Red Rum, who was chipping away but looked to have left his challenge too late.

    But as the Black Kangaroo jumped the final fence, his stamina reserves hit rock bottom.

    Never has there been a more agonising 450 metres in sport. Crisp, out on his feet, flailing wildly from left to right, losing focus. Jockey Richard Pitman pulled the whip – it seemed to startle Crisp more than anything.

    And a dozen lengths back, Red Rum was still determinedly wearing him down.

    With 100 metres to go, Crisp was still out by five lengths, but he could barely put one hoof in front of the other. Red Rum took the lead with less than 15 metres to go, winning by three quarters of a length at the line.

    Amazingly, they had smashed the race record by 19 seconds, a mark that had stood for 40 years.

    It was not broken again until 1990.

    Words cannot describe such a monumental race.

    Think Our Waverley Star versus Bonecrusher, or Australia II versus Liberty, or the Australia versus United States men’s 4x100m in the swimming in Sydney, or even Kerryn McCann versus Hellen Cherono Koskei. It was truly a great, great contest.

    Red Rum would go on to become an Aintree immortal, winning his second Grand National in 1974 before a historic third victory under topweight in 1977. Incredibly, he also ran second in 1975 and 1976.

    As for Crisp, he would race once more at Doncaster in November 1973. Red Rum was also among entries, and rival trainers – scared to take on these two formidable chasers – withdrew their horses one by one.

    In the end, only two entries remained, with a Grand National rematch taking place at Doncaster, this time under level weights.

    To the roar of the crowd, Crisp avenged his Grand National defeat with a 10 length victory.

    However, an injury sustained during the run curtailed his career and he was retired.

    Intriguingly, not much is known about Crisp’s post-racing life. It is said he became a fox hunter, dying sometime around 1981 while out hunting.

    Pitman told the media upon the 30th anniversary of the race in 2003 that Crisp had been buried at the entrance of his then-owner’s estate. A cherry tree was planted over the grave, and it is said to blossom every year at Grand National time.

    Crisp is Australia’s forgotten hero, who deserves his place among the greatest thoroughbreds this country has produced.

    And his performance at Aintree in March 1973 deserves to rank as one of Australia’s finest sporting moments, even in defeat.