This piece was first published in 'Racing Ahead'.
Recently I watched again Denman’s first Hennessey. Now let’s be clear, Denman is my all-time favourite, and it was on this day that the thought entered my head ‘this could be the Arkle of our age’. I was wrong, of course. His heart problem saw to that, as Arkle’s only challenger Flyingbolt was rendered ordinary by a blood disorder. Matt Chapman, a man never to shy away from his opinions, made the bold claim (and I paraphrase) ‘Wow, that is up there with Crisp in the Grand National. No, it’s better than that’.
Matt Chapman was right to be over-awed by the performance. It was awesome. But he is wrong to place it above Crisp’s heroics in the Grand National. Denman won a race his ability and form suggested he could win. The manner of his victory may have took the breath away, and it elevated him into a live contender for Kauto’s crown. But it was not as magnificent as trying to achieve the impossible. At the time we all thought he had simply failed to give 23Ib to a well handicapped handicapper. The subsequent years proved that idea well wide of the mark.
Crisp was a 2-mile Champion chaser. On a good day on good ground he stayed all of 2m 4-furlongs. He had jumped the last in the previous year’s Gold Cup and petered out to finish only fifth. He was carrying 12-stone. They weren’t so worried by weight in those days. Today either a 2-miler or a top-weight would be dropped in, hunted round, to move quietly into contention crossing the Melling Road. Yet Fred Winter did not send Richard Pitman out into battle with such wimpish instructions. ‘Make the running,’ he said. ‘Slow them down from the front’. Crisp, though, was Australian and doing things the easy way is just not the Aussie style. As Pitman described at a later date. ‘Most horses show into the Aintree fences and pop over’. Crisp ate fences and he indulged himself that day. ‘Fearsome’, he laughed at the legend that is the National. ‘These dandy brushes! You kidding me?’
The race was a nightmare for the cameramen. Crisp was so far ahead by the first Valentine’s that the whole field could not kept in one frame. As Julien Wilson exclaimed as Crisp went to Becher’s for the second time. ‘I’ve never seen a horse so far ahead in a National’. The great, and I truly mean ‘great’, L’Escargot was a fence and a half behind Crisp at one point and did magnificently well to finish 3rd. If Brian Fletcher had delayed closing the gap by ten seconds he would not have won. Perhaps if Pitman had not picked up his whip at the elbow Red Rum might not have won. If the race, as today, was 90 yards shorter …
Crisp was beaten, trying to give 23Ibs to the greatest of all Aintree horses. Third was L’Escargot, the winner of 2 Gold Cups and subsequently a Grand National winner himself, and fourth was Spanish Steps, a Hennessey winner and legend of the sport.
No, Matt, Denman winning the Hennessey cheered the soul but Crisp oh so very nearly achieved the impossible.
Keith Knight is a workaday writer of fiction, worker in the real world but foremost a horse racing fanatic. The joy of the sport is the horse - all horses.