Crisp – the most iconic of Australia’s great racehorses?

Iconic, sadly, has become something of a hackneyed word. In essence, it should be used to describe something or someone who is uniquely special or symbolic of a certain greatness and/or worthy of veneration … or simply not forgotten. 

In the case of racehorses, I think the definition ought be expanded to those who frequently pepper conversation long after they’re gone. The word does not define who is the best. 

And, as last Saturday marked the 50th anniversary of Crisp’s Grand National it prompted me to muse as to who are Australia’s most iconic horses?

Of course, 1973 was Red Rum’s Grand National not Crisp’s but it was the herculean performance of the Australian runner-up which has been pivotal to all discussion, ever since, of that famous race.

“It’s 50 years since Red Rum’s first National – but let’s remember it as Crisp’s day,” was the headline to Chris Cook’s feature on Crisp, in the Racing Post, in the lead-up to this year’s National. 

This was just one of three stories on Crisp run in the Racing Post this year; just three of the countless number of yarns which have been written about this mighty steeplechaser; long, long after his career ended. 

Cook, in his story, noted that he was just seven weeks old when Crisp contested the National. This, if nothing else, speaks to the iconic nature of the horse who was bred and owned by VRC chairman Sir Chester Manifold. 

“It was 50 years ago that Crisp put up the most amazing performance in defeat that any British racecourse has seen and I’m starting to wonder why there isn’t a statue of him. This [year)] is Crisp’s day. He was the best in that race by more than a stone and as big a hero as any horse ever was,” Cook wrote in a simply remarkable exultation, 50 years on, of a horse he did not see. 

A year earlier, outstanding race caller Richard Hoiles, wrote: “1973 will always be remembered as Crisp’s National”.

So, Australia’s most iconic horses are as follows – which, if nothing else, should generate some debate. 

  1. Crisp

Crisp endeavoured to lead throughout, despite carrying top weight of 76 kilograms, in the 1973 Grand National. He was overhauled, in the last few bounds, by Red Rum who carried 10.5 kilograms less. Red Rum would go on to prove himself the greatest ever National performer with three wins and two seconds in five straight years. 

“There have been some valiant efforts in defeat in our sport, but it seems to me that Crisp’s stands out by about a million miles. He was plainly exhausted and yet he kept trying. What was that old saying: no-one remembers the guy who came second? Well, phooey to that,” Cook wrote. 

And Crisp’s jockey Richard Pitman concedes he got it wrong which may have made the difference between winning and losing. “I shouldn’t have used the whip at all. He was so big and so heavy that when you take your hand off one rein to give him a crack, you lose him. He fell away from me and, if I had just sat and pushed him out to the Elbow, then given him a crack when he had the running rail, fine, but you can’t change it.

“I don’t think about it now because there’s nothing I can do about it, but if someone brings it up I’m happy to speak and I can recall every step of the way. Everyone has an opinion and it’s incredible that we’re still talking about a race from 1973,” Pitman said in a 2022 interview. 

  1. Phap Lap

Still the most popular exhibit at the Melbourne museum and, in truth, probably the only horse whose name would be known by an Australian of (virtually) any age.

His inclusion is obvious so why demoted to number two? Mainly because I’m obsessed with Crisp who, these days, probably gets more newspaper inches than Phar Lap and the Red Terror’s legend was, perhaps, enhanced by being a ‘child of the great depression when the populace was desperate for a hero. This theory, espoused by my father, also explained why Donald Bradman and Walter Lindrum were the icons of the early part of the 20th century. 

Still, the legend was palpable from an attempted shooting, a dramatic entrance to the Melbourne Cup and four wins in Cup week to his win at Agua Caliente in Mexico and his mysterious death. 

“Won like Phar Lap….and a heart as big as Phar Lap’s” are still expressions you’ll hear today. 

Like Crisp, he was idolised by many outside Australia. Francis Dunne, then a veteran steward in New York, was asked after Secretariat’s triple Crown success whether Man O’ War or Secretariat was the greatest horse that he had ever seen. “Neither,” said Dunne,“I saw Phar Lap.”

Legendary American jockeys Eddie Arcaro and Johnny Longden are also believed to have declared Phar Lap as ‘the greatest”. 

  1. Mosstrooper

It’s so big “that even Mosstrooper couldn’t jump over it” remains a perennial quote and was apparently borne of the amount of fan letters received by the owner and trainer of the champion jumper. 

“Mosstrooper belonged to the golden age of Australian racing,” wrote historian Andrew Lemon, “He was superbly bred from the lines of Carbine and St Simon but failed to win on the flat. Over the jumps it was a different story. He won three of the big four jumping races of his era during the winter that separated Phar Lap’s 1929 AJC and Victoria Derby wins from triumph in the 1930 Melbourne Cup.”

Perhaps he too was a hero of the depression but sufficiently celebrated to be the subject of a book by Peter Harris and to remain part of the racing, if not general, vernacular.  His name sits alongside Better Loosen Up, Hyperno and Bletchingly and so many other greats of flat racing on The Bendigo Jockey Club’s “Nursery of Champions” honour roll. 

  1. Drongo

“You bloody drongo”, is about as Australian as Vegemite. It’s use, admittedly not quite as prevalent now as before the turn of the century, stems from the 1920’s racehorse of that name. 

Drongo didn’t manage to win a race in 37 starts and somehow the word gradually supplanted dill or mug as the usual reference to those our kids would now describe as “losers”.

This was all a bit harsh really as Drongo was no slouch. His credits included running second in the 1923 Victoria Derby to Frances Tressady who remains the last filly to win that Classic. He is also the subject of a book by Bruce Walkley.

  1. Scotch And Dry

Might be showing my age now but “further in front than Scotch And Dry” was a catch-cry of my early days at the track. He was Vo Rogue, although not quite that good, before Vo Rogue. 

The exciting front-running stayer won 17 races including the 1973 Underwood Stakes and his other victories included the Hotham Handicap (now Lexus Stakes), Herbert Power and Fisher Plate in 1972. He also won a Queen’s Plate, Mornington Cup and Duke Of Norfolk Stakes.

  1. Vain

Detouring away from the vernacular, for a moment, and a return to general racetrack conversation demands Vain’s inclusion in the list. This was especially so in the time of Black Caviar’s incredible exploits during which Vain was the only sprinter legitimately measured against the new (and unbeaten) star.

Vain was the first Victoriantrained winner of the Golden Slipper who was beaten just twice in 14 starts. His three stunning wins during Cup week of 1969 cemented his iconic status as did the fact that champion jockey Roy Higgins, not his regular rider Pat Hyland,  played a hand in Vain’s only two defeats. 

Higgins rode Beau Babylon to beat Vain in the Sires’ Produce Stakes and was then aboard the champion, with Hyland suspended, when beaten by Daryl’s Joy in the Moonee Valley (Stutt) Stakes. Vain turned the tables in the Caulfield Guineas on Daryl’s Joy, who then won the Cox Plate and Derby, while Vain chalked up his Cup week treble.  

  1. Bernborough

Back to the vernacular and any horse who unleashes a withering finish can only be, and still is, compared to Bernborough. 

The mighty Queenslander emerged from the relative obscurity of a career of 20 starts confined to Toowoomba, with the owner’s nominations rejected elsewhere, to win 15 feature races straight in Sydney and Melbourne, defying big weights and huge starts. Might he have been our greatest ever racehorse?

  1. Manfred

“Further back than Manfred,” is, of course, the reference to Manfred winning the 1925 AJC Derby after turning sideways at the start and purportedly conceding a furlong (200m) start to his rivals. 

  1. Carbine 

Carbine remains the highest weighted Melbourne Cup winner with 66 kilograms in 1890. More accurately he carried 10st 5lb and Carbine was always the reference, when playing poker, to having two pairs, tens and fives. 

  1. Maori’s Idol

Iconic? Well, I doubt that anyone would seriously argue that he is not the greatest trotter this country has ever seen. Furthermore, he beat topclass pacers at their own game, younger harness racing fans will still watch his videos in awe…and some older fans will declare him Australia’s greatest standardbred (pacers included) if not the greatest of any racing breed. 

So there we have it with honourable mentions to Subzero, Galleywood (who “rose from the dead”); Tommy Smith’s triumvirate of Kingston Town, Tulloch and (latterly) Gunsynd and also Vo Rogue, Ajax, Luskin Star, Paleface Adios, Reckless, Banna Strand, Archer, Bill The Bastard and Takeover Target. Only the passage of time will tell whether Black Caviar and Winx join the list.

As a Victorian, for the sake of balance, I sought the view of a New South Welshman – legendary caller John Tapp who continues to entertain via his podcasts at 

Tapp said: “One, Phar Lap. Thank goodness press, radio and cinema newsreels in the 1930s elevated Phar Lap to the legendary status he so richly deserved and two, the horse with the Hollywood looks Bernborough who captivated the racing public at a time when it desperately needed a diversion from the gloom of war. He did it in three states in spectacular fashion.

“Then, hard to separate Tulloch and Kingston Town. Tulloch’s return from debilitating illness was fairytale stuff but the Kingston Town story had everything. Passed in at the yearling sale, ran last at his initial start, and was then transformed into a lethal weapon as a gelding. There was the Tommy Smith factor and the much loved fresh faced young jockey [Malcolm Johnston]. And what a package he was – a beautifully actioned, sleek racing machine with a turn of foot that often left his rivals floundering. 

“I’ll go with Phar Lap, Bernborough, Kingston Town and Tulloch with Winx obviously deserving of a prominent place as an icon of the modern era.” 

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