Jumps racing has its followers and its detractors … with both groups equally as passionate about their cause.
That fact has to be acknowledged but, whatever the rights and wrongs of the sport, the Grand National, which will take place at Aintree this Saturday, has its place entrenched in jumps racing folklore and in racing history as the acknowledged greatest jumps race on the planet.
There is another acknowledgement due here too … that of Red Rum being a true Grand National hero.
The mighty Red Rum remains the only horse to win three Grand National’s. Those successes came in 1973, ‘74 and ’77. Amazingly, Red Rum also finished second in 1975 and 1976.
Just which victory was the most famous is up for debate … simply because Red Rum’s third Grand National win raised the bar to unthought of heights … but, as a sheer spectacle, Red Rum’s chasing down of the ever-so game Australian champion Crisp from more than twenty lengths back in the 1973 Grand National has to take some beating.
If it was a boxing match, the Red Rum and Crisp would not have been allowed in the same ring. Crisp was a mountain of a horse, a proven international champion, with a formidable record of feature wins in Australia and England, while Red Rum was a small horse who was trained out of the back yard of trainer Ginger McCain’s car dealership.
But it wasn’t a boxing match and the handicapper, who is tasked with evening out the form, almost got his dead heat.
Crisp was asked to carry 76kg over the (approximately) 7250m contest which takes in thirty jumps, including the likes of the notorious Beacher’s Brook, The Chair and the Canel Turn, while Red Rum was set 65.75kg. As anyone could understand, that weight difference over that distance would be a telling factor. (The 76kg is now banned from the Grand National weight structure).
Crisp had looked like he would defy those odds though, jumping the last still some fifteen lengths clear of Red Rum, who was the only other runner in contention.
In the 494m flat run home, Crisp’s massive stride was still in play, but the rate in which the stride was being delivered began to slow as the tiring champion with the big weight began to feel the pinch. By contrast, Red Rum was chasing hard, his action looking more like a scamper than anything else, but he was effectively closing ground on the long-time leader.
In that flat run home there is what is called an elbow, where the horses have to make only a marginal shift in direction to complete the final run to the finishing line and, sadly for Crisp, it was here that he wandered around slightly, losing just that little bit of ground which arguably would prove so costly.
Red Rum, buoyed by his huge pull at the weights, kept coming and he collared Crisp a stride and a half from the line to earn his first Grand National win at the expense of Crisp, who could not have been braver in defeat.
Crisp’s jockey Richard Pitman later stated in The Guardian: “I still dream about that race, of Crisp running so strongly and jumping so fearlessly, and then the sound of Red Rum’s hooves as he got closer and closer at the end. I felt as though I was tied to a railway line with an express train thundering up and being unable to jump out of the way.”
Whatever his other achievements, Crisp will thus forever be associated with the legacy of Red Rum which took off from that moment and just got bigger and bigger until he quickly became a national treasure.
In 1974 Red Rum became the first horse since Reynoldstown in 1936 to complete the Grand National double.
This time Red Rum, who now carried the top weight, hit the lead as the field approached Beacher’s Brook for the second time. He was four lengths ahead with four fences left to jump. Jockey Brian Fletcher, who had also partnered Red Rum the previous year, had time to have a good look over his shoulder after jumping the third last fence as he kept Red Rum’s momentum going.
Red Rum never missed a beat in the final run home powering away over the closing stages to keep L’Escargot well back in second place. (L’Escargot would get his revenge on Red Rum in the 1975 event).
Then, in 1977, Red Rum did the ‘impossible’ landing his third Grand National title.
When we said earlier that which victory was the most famous is up for debate … the Red Rum / Crisp contest, because of the remarkable racing spectacle it provided, invariably comes up first, but Red Rum’s third Grand National victory, as a witness to history being created, holds no peer.
Tommy Stack held the reins this time as Red Rum produced his now trademark, full-on, totally committed challenge with his truly remarkable sustained gallop at the end of such a tough race being a wonder to behold.
You didn’t have to be at Aintree when Red Rum cleared the final fence in front. The roar from the television coverage was enough to send chills down the spine and the history making effort was so well complemented by Peter O’Sullivan’s race commentary.
‘And they are coming to the last fence in the National. Red Rum with a tremendous chance of winning his third National,’ called O’Sullivan. “He jumps it. He is getting the most tremendous cheer from the crowd. They are willing him home now. The twelve-year-old Red Rum, being proceeded only by loose horses, being chased by Churchtown Boy.
‘Coming to the elbow, there is a furlong now between Red Rum and his third Grand National triumph and he is coming up to the line to win it like a fresh horse in great style. He comes home to a tremendous reception, the likes of which you’ve never heard.’
Do yourself a favour. Watch the replay and get goosebumps. It is forever going to be one of the greatest moments in racing history.
Shades of the ‘go Lonhro go’ commentary in the 2004 Australian Cup.
Even before his third Grand National win, Red Rum was a national celebrity, and he would not be allowed to fade away in retirement.
Apart from leading the Grand National parade for many years, he was on hand to help open supermarkets and the Steeplechase rollercoaster at Blackpool Pleasure Beach. He also switched on the Blackpool lights. A racecourse bar, formerly called “The Sefton”, was changed to “The Red Rum” and his likeness graced playing cards, mugs, posters, models, paintings, plates and jigsaw puzzles. Several books have been written about Red Rum and, believe it or not, in 1977 Red Rum appeared as a studio guest at the BBC Sports Personality of the Year awards ceremony.
A champion and a superstar at every turn, Red Rum died on 18 October 1995 at the age of thirty. His death was carried as a lead item on both television and in the print media. On 19 September 2011, Red Rum’s trainer Ginger McCain died aged 80.
Fittingly, Red Rum is buried at the winning post of the Aintree Racecourse.
The epitaph there reads:
‘Respect this place / this hallowed ground / a legend here / his rest has found / his feet would fly / our spirits soar / he earned our love for evermore.’