National still casts a spell on Aintree legend Champion

Bob Champion is predicting more Grand National magic, 40 years on from his heroic victory in the world’s most-watched steeplechase.

Champion became the author of one of racing’s greatest fairytales when Aldaniti triumphed in the 1981 renewal – with both the horse and his jockey having overcome great adversity on their path to Aintree fame.

For Champion that adversity was a testicular cancer diagnosis in 1979, after which it was discovered the disease was spreading throughout his body and chemotherapy was his only chance of survival.

Aldaniti’s life hung in the balance too, with two serious tendon injuries halting his racing career and causing vets to advise the gelding was euthanised rather than rehabilitated.

Nick Embiricos, the horse’s owner, knew the chestnut was essential to Champion’s recovery and would not allow it, thus leaving one of the most endearing partnerships in the sport intact when Champion was eventually given the all-clear.

Bob Champion and Aldaniti triumphing in the 1981 Grand National
Bob Champion and Aldaniti triumphing in the 1981 Grand National (PA)

What happened next captured the imagination of the world, a four-length victory in the most famous race of all – an emotive triumph over misfortune that was later immortalised both in print and on screen.

Aldaniti was a 10-1 chance for the race, his chief rival being the great hunter chaser Spartan Missile, ridden by John Thorne, but Champion retained complete faith in his horse and had not even considered the possibility of defeat.

“I was so confident of winning it was unbelievable,” he said.

“You’ll think I must be mad for saying it, but going there I thought it was a formality.

“Then I made a mistake at the first and second fences, but things started to pan out really well after that. I couldn’t see myself getting beaten and I was right for once in my life!”

Aldaniti took up the lead over the 11th obstacle and was not passed from then onwards, jumping and travelling with complete fluency, but his passage through the race varied greatly from the one envisaged by trainer Josh Gifford.

“My orders were to hold him up until the last fence,” Champion explained.

“But I had the best run down the Canal Turn that anybody could have had in the race, ever, and everything went so smoothly.

Josh Gifford (second right) with Aldaniti, Bob Champion (left) and owner Nick Embiricos at the Gifford Stables
Josh Gifford (second right) with Aldaniti, Bob Champion (left) and owner Nick Embiricos at the Gifford Stables (PA)

“I went from 29th to jumping to the front in three fences, just round the Canal Turn, which is a very short distance.

“The only reason I made up that ground is because I just had a better run round, I didn’t go any quicker, and then when I hit the front jumping Valentine’s, all I can think about is the b********* I’m getting in the stands from the guv’nor for getting there too early!

“I realised I was there and I was going at my pace, and I knew he stayed and if I could get him into a good rhythm, he’d jump for fun.

“He took me into a fence, it wasn’t me taking him – he loved every second.”

Champion knew the agreed tactics had been abandoned at that point and was already arming himself with examples of successful front-running rides to justify his departure from the game plan to Gifford.

“All I could think about then was excuses for why I’m there in front – I went through five Red Rum Nationals in my mind,” he said.

“Also Bob Davies, when he won on Lucius, he took it up too early and still won – I had all those excuses!

Aldaniti clearing the last fence on the way to his famous victory
Aldaniti clearing the last fence on the way to his famous victory (PA)

“I remember looking to one side and seeing Rubstic, who’d won a couple of years before, and on my other side was Sebastian V, who finished second the same year, so they were another two excuses.

“Eventually when I was two out, I thought ‘I’ve got to keep hold of his head’ because his legs were like glass and keeping him sound was the most important thing.

“So I thought, ‘I’m going to keep holding him together, just hold him together and don’t lose your cool’ – and it worked.”

Despite the inevitable outpouring of admiration from all present, Champion’s mind had already turned to the next race and he therefore had little time to bask in what he and his mount had just achieved.

“When I pulled up my first thought was, ‘I did this for all the nurses and doctors in the Royal Marsden (hospital), and the patients, to give them hope’,” he said.

“That was it then, basically it was just back to business. I rode in another race an hour later, so I didn’t have time to really celebrate.”

It was only in the aftermath of victory that its impact became clear, with an influx of donations catalysing the creation of the Bob Champion Cancer Trust, a charity that has since raised more than £15million to fund further research into the two forms of the disease most liable to affect men – prostate and testicular cancer.

Champion’s philanthropy earned him a CBE in the 2021 New Year Honours, a consequence of the 1981 victory that was as unexpected as the success of the charity itself.

“I was on the right horse on the right day, which always helps,” he said.

“But I didn’t go into the race thinking ‘this is going to lead to the Bob Champion Cancer Trust’ or anything like that. I just wanted to go into the race and win it, because it had really been my ambition for all of my life.

Aldaniti meets the Queen as Champion looks on
Aldaniti meets the Queen as Champion looks on (PA)

“Everything changed after that day, really.”

The Grand National is a race that moves the public like no other, with many of the sport’s best known characters participants over the famous fences and the wide-open nature of the race appealing to seasoned punters and novice spectators alike.

“It’s racing’s cup final,” is Champion’s analogy.

“There always seems to be a story involved with it – you’ve got 40 runners, everybody in the country used to have their one bet a year on the Grand National.”

Champion cites the 1973 National as the most outstanding renewal of the race, with the future three-time winner Red Rum claiming the first of his successes from the valiant Australian chaser Crisp, who was carrying a top-weight of 12st.

“The first time I got round was the Crisp versus Red Rum National, and to me that was the greatest National ever,” he said.

“What a performance by Crisp – unbelievable from Richard Pitman – but sadly he got beaten.

“Red Rum had only 10st 5lb, nearly two stone less. It was tremendous.”

The 1973 race is often listed among the sport’s most memorable moments, creating the sort of front-page coverage that has most recently been achieved by the Cheltenham Festival success of Rachael Blackmore.

Rachael Blackmore collects the Cheltenham Festival leading jockey trophy
Rachael Blackmore collects the Cheltenham Festival leading jockey trophy (David Davies/PA)

Champion watched with great admiration as Blackmore took the leading jockey title at the Festival, and is equally impressed by Hollie Doyle’s rise to prominence on the Flat.

“Look at Rachael Blackmore – she’s an absolutely fantastic advert for racing – and Hollie Doyle,” he said.

“They’re two women that have done a fantastic job for racing, and it’s great to see them doing so well. They deserve their success.

“There are plenty of other women too, not just those two – there’s Bryony Frost as well – but they do a fantastic job.

“They’re a great advert for racing and they ride equally as well as the men.”

Champion will no doubt be cheering home whichever horse Blackmore partners in this season’s big race, but he is also confident the favourite will come to the fore.

“The favourite’s the one they’ve got to beat, the Jonjo (O’Neill) horse – Cloth Cap,” he said.

“I was really impressed with him at Kelso, and then the time before that he absolutely bolted up.

“I think he’s the one they’ve all got to beat – he jumps for fun, which is the main thing.

“You keep jumping, you win Nationals.”

Cloth Cap winning the Ladbrokes Trophy Chase under Tom Scudamore
Cloth Cap winning the Ladbrokes Trophy Chase under Tom Scudamore (Alan Crowhurst/PA)

Cloth Cap’s jockey Tom Scudamore is part of a racing dynasty which has close ties with the Grand National, something Champion feels would make victory even sweeter for the family.

“What a story that would be with Tom Scudamore, because Tom’s grandfather rode the winner of the National – Michael Scudamore,” he said.

“Then his father (Peter) never won a National, but he and his partner (Lucinda Russell) trained a National winner, One For Arthur.

“Maybe it’s the Tote treble for them with Tom, which I’d love to see. It’d be a great story, with the three generations, and they are terrific people.”

Carson and Champion join sports figures in urging over-70s to get Covid-19 vaccine

Willie Carson and Bob Champion have put their weight behind the push to encourage people aged 70 and over to receive their coronavirus vaccination.

Five-time champion Flat jockey Carson, 78, and 72-year-old Champion, who recovered from cancer to win the Grand National on Aldaniti in 1981, have both had their first jab from the NHS – and urge others to follow suit.

Carson said: “Four weeks ago I got one of the best phone calls I’ve received this year – the appointment for my first coronavirus vaccination at Cirencester Hospital. I encourage everyone to get it quick – make a nuisance of yourself! The jab will make you safer.”

Carson and Champion, who will receive their second dose within 12 weeks, are in the top four priority groups that has accounted for 88 per cent of Covid deaths.

Champion said: “Last week I was very excited going to my GP surgery to receive my vaccination from the surgery nurse. It is wonderful to have thousands of doctors, nurses and volunteers helping to make us safe and hopefully get us back to some normality in the near future.”

Other sporting heroes such as 1966 World Cup winner Sir Geoff Hurst, former England manager Roy Hodgson, former England cricketer David Lloyd and 1969 Wimbledon women’s singles winner Ann Jones have been helping the Government to get the message across.

Lord’s Cricket Ground is just one of more than 80 elite and grassroots sport venues that have been partly converted into either a large vaccination centre or GP-led service in support of the vaccine rollout – with a number of racecourses, including Newbury and Epsom, playing their part.

Health Secretary Matt Hancock speaks to the media during a visit to the NHS vaccine centre that has been set up in the grounds of Epsom
Health Secretary Matt Hancock speaks to the media during a visit to the NHS vaccine centre that has been set up in the grounds of Epsom (Dominic Lipinski/PA)

Culture secretary Oliver Dowden said: “Sports have played a magnificent role in helping us fight this virus, from hosting test centres, to providing food to frontline workers, to calling older fans at risk of loneliness.

“And now venues such as Lord’s are helping deliver the biggest and fastest vaccination programme in Britain’s history.

“Our elderly have shown us the way by enthusiastically rolling up their sleeves, so let’s keep this going. I urge any over 70s to join our sports legends and contact the NHS if they haven’t had the vaccine yet.

“The vaccine will save lives, livelihoods and get us back to the things we love.”

Champion and Rust receive New Year Honours

Grand National-winning jockey Bob Champion has been made a CBE for his charitable services to prostate and testicular cancer research.

There is also recognition in the New Year Honours list for Nick Rust, the outgoing chief executive of the British Horseracing Authority – who has received an OBE for services to the sport.

The Bob Champion Cancer Trust has raised £15million since it was founded in 1983, two years after the jockey made a remarkable recovery from cancer to win the world’s greatest steeplechase on Aldaniti at Aintree.

Bob Champion and Aldaniti return after their famous Grand National triumph in 1981
Bob Champion and Aldaniti return after their famous Grand National triumph in 1981 (PA)

The trust raises funds for the Bob Champion Cancer Research Laboratory – part of the largest male-dedicated research facility in Europe, situated at the Institute of Cancer Research in Sutton – as well as for the Bob Champion Research and Education Building at the University of East Anglia in Norwich.

Champion admits he was totally taken aback when he was told he was to receive the honour.

“I’m absolutely chuffed to death. It was a big surprise to me,” he said.

“I got an MBE quite a long time ago, when I won the National, but this is for my cancer trust.

“It’s for everybody that works and has been involved in it and for the people that have supported it through the years.

Bob Champion in his Aldaniti colours before the John Smith’s Aintree Legends Charity Race on Grand National Day at Aintree in 2011
Bob Champion in his Aldaniti colours before the John Smith’s Aintree Legends Charity Race on Grand National Day at Aintree in 2011 (Anna Gowthorpe/PA)

“They have done so much for me, racing especially, and we’ve got the two research laboratories up and running – and they are doing a great job. We’ve got to keep raising the money to run them. Science costs money.

“We’re very fortunate we’ve got some top people working in there – and they are coming up with results, which is the main thing.”

For all charities, 2020 has been a tough year to raise money because of the many constraints of the coronavirus pandemic.

“It’s been a struggle this year – every charity is finding it difficult,” added Champion.

“Hopefully, this time next year things could be back to normal.”

Champion recalled how the cancer trust came to be set up, soon after his and Aldaniti’s famous victory.

“When I won the National quite a lot of people backed me and they sent their winnings to the Royal Marsden Hospital, care of me,” he said.

“Nick Embiricos, Aldaniti’s owner, and Professor Peckham, my specialist, thought it would be a good idea to set something up.

“Then quite a lot more money came in, so we thought we’d better start being professional. We went from there, and we’ve raised a lot of money.

“That money is going the right way. That is the main thing – with the two laboratories we’ve built and run coming up with the goods.

“Hopefully we’re going to keep helping a lot of people.

“We’ve raised money in different methods and ways, and that’s down to the people in this country. They are amazing, and it’s not just the racing side.”

BHA Chief Executive Nick Rust has been awarded an OBE
BHA Chief Executive Nick Rust has been awarded an OBE (Victoria Jones/PA)

Rust, meanwhile, steps down as head of the BHA after nearly six years leading racing’s governing body and regulator.

During his tenure, he has dealt with a range of issues – including significant change in the Levy, a review of the buying and selling of horses, improvements to horse welfare, the challenge of increasing diversity and inclusion and, this year of course, a pathway through the coronavirus pandemic which halted racing’s calendar for two months in spring and early summer.