Australia’s forgotten sporting hero: the immortal Crisp

Andrew Hawkins Columnist

By Andrew Hawkins, 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.

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    The Crowd Says (48)

    • February 28th 2013 @ 6:32am
      Bondy said | February 28th 2013 @ 6:32am | ! Report

      Nice subject matter Andrew like a death in the family that last furlong and a half in the national ,most suggest that Red Rum or spelt “Murder ” backwards was the greatest jumps horse of all time ,Crisp should’ve won the national i’ve heared of breaking the field up but fair dinkum.

      Great to see Star Kingdom inducted he owned the golden slipper and if you weren’t sired by him you simply didn’t win it at one stage,Star Kingdom had a major impact on two and three year old racing in Australia for decades.

      I dont believe horses nor people should be inducted that are current,inducting Sunline or Black Caviar whilst still racing doesn’t seem right to me it seems desperate.

      • Columnist

        February 28th 2013 @ 7:43am
        Andrew Hawkins said | February 28th 2013 @ 7:43am | ! Report

        I tend to agree Bondy about the induction of horses still racing. The common argument for it was, “why wait?” To that, I say, why not wait? She’d give the industry great publicity a year or two down the road when she was finally inducted. And the attention probably wouldn’t have been so strong as to steal the limelight from the other inductees.

        Star Kingdom was a great choice, for sure. The impact he had in establishing the Golden Slipper as a premier race was noteworthy in itself, not to mention all the other great two and three year olds he produced.

        Next year, I’m campaigning for Vo Rogue to get a guernsey. I can’t believe he hasn’t been recognised already!

    • February 28th 2013 @ 7:01am
      nan said | February 28th 2013 @ 7:01am | ! Report

      The mighty crisp his heart would have been as big if not bigger than Pharlaps.

      • Columnist

        February 28th 2013 @ 7:40am
        Andrew Hawkins said | February 28th 2013 @ 7:40am | ! Report

        And that heart carried him over the last 500 yards, especially. Not many horses could have fought on like Crisp did.

    • Columnist

      February 28th 2013 @ 7:18am
      Justin Cinque said | February 28th 2013 @ 7:18am | ! Report

      It’s a fantastic story. I remember the first time I saw the 1973 National, it was probably about four or five years ago, and I was mesmerised by it. What a race! Crisp ran a four mile race at two mile speed and the effect was that bar Red Rum every horse, including Crisp in the end, had their heart broken by the pressure the Aussie created.

      It’s hard to watch at the end. But it’s a legendary race.

      Andrew, do you think Crisp rates as our best chaser of all time? Or does it go to Karasi, who after running fourth in the 2001 Melbourne Cup behind Ethereal went on to win three consecutive Nakayama Grand Jumps in Japan in ’05, ’06, and ’07? I’m not sure myself.

      • Columnist

        February 28th 2013 @ 7:39am
        Andrew Hawkins said | February 28th 2013 @ 7:39am | ! Report

        I think we must have seen it for the first time around the same time Justin! It was just extraordinary.

        I think Crisp rates as our best, although I was always a Karasi fan. I think Karasi himself is underrated, although I still think Crisp would have him covered. Still, to win three Nakayama Grand Jumps is something special – and it could very easily have been four if not for injury.

        It’s quite amazing looking back now upon the 2001 Melbourne Cup and seeing the depth amongst the field. Who’d have thought it could produce future winners of races as varied as an Arc (Marienbard) and a Nakayama Grand Jump, in addition to other races. One of my favourite Melbourne Cups.

        • Columnist

          February 28th 2013 @ 8:08am
          Justin Cinque said | February 28th 2013 @ 8:08am | ! Report

          You’re probably right about Crisp. I don’t know if we’ll see articles about Karasi 40 years after his Japanese wins.

          On the 01 Cup, more amazing than the form out of it, was the race itself. Every time i watch it, i stll think Give The Slip is going to win half way down the straight. Good ol’ track bias deciding a Melbourne Cup; saving punters and denying Godolphin at Flemington again!

          • Columnist

            February 28th 2013 @ 9:21am
            Andrew Hawkins said | February 28th 2013 @ 9:21am | ! Report

            I reckon! And silly me, falling into Godolphin again year after year.

            Scott Seamer’s ride on Ethereal was perfect.

        • February 28th 2013 @ 8:37am
          Bondy said | February 28th 2013 @ 8:37am | ! Report

          I agree Crisp over Karasi but both great for our nation.

    • February 28th 2013 @ 7:53am
      SpearTackle said | February 28th 2013 @ 7:53am | ! Report

      Ripping read Andrew. Steeplechasing is the most physically gruelling event for a horse. It’s racings equivalent of the Olympic marathon or a Test match which goes down to the final session on day five. It’s a shame that the only ever attention it recieves in Australia is news of horses and jockeys falling. Too bad that steeplechasing in Australia isn’t what it used to be. It seems unlikely we’ll ever see a great chaser run much of their career down here if they’re all shipped overseas after showing glimpses of success early.

      • Columnist

        February 28th 2013 @ 8:02am
        Justin Cinque said | February 28th 2013 @ 8:02am | ! Report

        I agree SpearTackle, it’s sad to see where jumps racing is in this country. The curcuit has almost become farcical. But just thinking about it there’s still been lots to enjoy over the last few years – Black And Bent in particular has been great to watch. Personally, i can’t wait to see this month’s Mornington Cup winner Tuscan Fire back over fences – he might clean everything up this winter.

        • Columnist

          February 28th 2013 @ 8:17am
          Alfred Chan said | February 28th 2013 @ 8:17am | ! Report

          Hissing Sid looked unstoppable last year in his first few attempts at the jumps until injury ruled him out of all the major races. He’ll be nine years old this year but it’s always good to see those horses who just missed out on success on the flat, dominating the jumps.

        • Columnist

          February 28th 2013 @ 9:32am
          Andrew Hawkins said | February 28th 2013 @ 9:32am | ! Report

          Do you reckon they’ll put Tuscan Fire back over fences Justin? I reckon they might keep him to a Caulfield Cup campaign now he has his ticket into the race…

          • Columnist

            February 28th 2013 @ 9:50am
            Justin Cinque said | February 28th 2013 @ 9:50am | ! Report

            They’ve got options for sure. Using last year’s M’ton Cup winner Norsqui as an example – and he won the 2011 Lavazza yet was nowhere near up to Caul Cup standard, i think they should definitely aim at Warrnambool and the Sandown jumps features with TF. He’s a top class jumper with Listed/G3 ability over 2400m and longer on the flat.

      • Columnist

        February 28th 2013 @ 9:32am
        Andrew Hawkins said | February 28th 2013 @ 9:32am | ! Report

        Cheers SpearTackle. It is such a gruelling event, for both horse and rider. Being a Sydneysider, I haven’t had the opportunity to see steeplechases in the flesh too often. I was at Warrnambool in 2011 (for the ridiculous Banna Strand incident), while I had the great opportunity to see both the Cheltenham Gold Cup (won by Synchronised) and the Grand National at Aintree (won by Neptune Collonges) last year.

        Every time I see it in the flesh, I have more admiration for both horse and rider. I do think it has been poorly managed in Australia – reducing the size of the jump, for example, only increases the risk for horses. It was amazing to see after last year’s Grand National the willingness of the RSPCA too to work with the racing industry. Different scenario to here, for sure.

        Australia still has an entrant in this year’s Grand National, Pentiffic (who won the Hiskens, the Crisp and the Grand National Steeple in 2009). However, his form has been below par since joining Venetia Williams, so he’d need a lot of luck to make the field.

    • February 28th 2013 @ 9:56am
      Scuba said | February 28th 2013 @ 9:56am | ! Report

      Great read, great story.

      One nitpick (to the website, not the author) – this story is about Crisp. There are plenty of photos you could use of him at the top of the story rather than running the stock standard Black Caviar photo. I nearly threw a brick through the TV last Saturday listening to McAvaney talk about Black Caviar more often than any of the horses actually running on the day. Racing does not begin and end at Black Caviar (as this story illustrates brilliantly).

      • Columnist

        February 28th 2013 @ 5:07pm
        Andrew Hawkins said | February 28th 2013 @ 5:07pm | ! Report

        I tend to agree Scuba, especially that racing does not start and end with Black Caviar. She has definitely become racing’s most marketable commodity, but there are stories far beyond the great mare. Incredible tales occur every day in racing, but I guess we have to take Black Caviar while she is so recognisable.

    • Roar Pro

      February 28th 2013 @ 10:20am
      Alexander Grant said | February 28th 2013 @ 10:20am | ! Report

      Have you ever seen a horse so spent on the lane? So hard to watch the end of that again.

      Good read.

      Also, your video is embedded at the wrong time 😉

      • Columnist

        February 28th 2013 @ 5:07pm
        Andrew Hawkins said | February 28th 2013 @ 5:07pm | ! Report

        Thanks Alex, we’ll try to fix that up 🙂 I remember chatting about this with you ages ago, you’ll never see a horse try harder.