The finish of the 1973 Grand National was notable, of course, for the victory of a then up-and-coming Red Rum, but also the anguished, unforgettable defeat of the second horse home, Crisp. Described by Australian Horse Racing as “probably the best Australian horse of all time over jumps”, Crisp was bred and owned by prominent racing administrator Sir Chester Manifold.


Having fought a losing battle with the handicapper in his native country, the “Black Kangaroo”, as Crisp was known, joined Fred Winter at Uplands, near Lambourn, Berkshire. He made an almost immediate impact, winning 1971 National Hunt Two-Mile Champion Chase, now the Queen Mother Champion Chase, by 25 lengths. He returned to the Cheltenham Festival in 1972 to contest the Cheltenham Gold Cup but, ridden in behind other horses, struggled home in fifth place.


Undeterred, connections stepped Crisp up in distance in 1973, with the Grand National the obvious target such a bold, exuberant jumper. Allotted 12st at Aintree, Crisp was sent off 9/1 joint favourite alongside Red Rum, to whom he was conceding 23lb. Jockey Richard Pitman had Crisp in a prominent position from the start and took the lead at the seventh fence, a.k.a. Foinavon. He continued to lead throughout the first circuit and, when his nearest pursuer, Grey Sombrero, fell at the Chair, was left 30 lengths clear.


Crisp continued to jump superbly at the head of affairs for most of the second circuit but, at the second last, his stamina started to ebb away. He was still 15 lengths ahead jumping the final fence but, halfway up the run-in, Pitman made the fateful mistake of reaching for his whip, letting go of his head in the process. Crisp wandered off a true line, exhausted, in the final furlong or so, while all the time Red Rum was thundering, gun-barrel straight, in pursuit. Agonisingly, Red Rum gradually reeled in the long-time leader, taking up the running three or four strides from the line to win by three-quarters of a length.


Fred Winter, renowned for his powerful, dominant personality, barely mentioned the race afterwards and when he did, several weeks later, he simply asked Pitman, “You know what you did wrong in that race?” When Pitman replied in the affirmative, Winter said, “Well, if that’s the case, then there’s no point discussing it.”


If you listen to any commentary on the Grand National at Aintree, you’ll invariably hear some reference to heading out into the country. “The country” has, of course, long been incorporated into the modern racecourse, but the phrase harks back to the early days of the world-famous steeplechase, first run as Grand Liverpool Steeplechase in 1839. At that time, the race started and finished on the racecourse proper, but the majority of it took place in the adjoining countryside. The runners jumped obstacles including two small, natural streams, or brooks, marked with post and rail fences, banks, with or without ditches, gates, hedges and even a stone wall, all of which were suitably flagged.


It was on this original, cross-country course that 40-year-old Captain Martin Becher lined up on 20/1 chance Conrad in the inaugural running of the Grand National in 1839. At the first of the major obstacles, now known as Becher’s Brook, Conrad propped sharply, stiff-legged, and catapulted Captain Becher over his head into the icy, filthy water of the brook below. Sensibly, Becher took shelter in the Brook until the last of his 16 rivals had galloped by, before remounting and setting off in vain pursuit. Ironically, he parted company from Conrad again at the second brook, now known as Valentine’s Brook, but it was his first mishap that made him a key character in Grand National folklore.


As for the fence that bears his name, Becher’s Brook, which is jumped twice during the Grand National, has been substantially modified for safety purposes in recent years. The fence remains a controversial obstacle, but is a far cry from its original form; the height of the fence remains unchanged a 4 feet 10 inches, but the Brook itself has been narrowed and raised, and the landing side, which was originally three feet lower than the take-off side, has been levelled to create a maximum drop of between six and ten inches. In common with most of the National fences, the traditional natural timber core of the fence has been replaced with artificial, plastic ‘birch’. The course has also been widened to allows runners to bypass the fence altogether, if necessary.