Bob Champion became the author of one of racing’s greatest fairy tales when Aldaniti triumphed in the 1981 renewal – with the horse and its jockey having overcome great adversity on their way to Aintree fame.
For Champion, this adversity was a diagnosis of testicular cancer in 1979, after which it was discovered that the disease spread throughout his body and that chemotherapy was his only chance of survival.
Aldaniti’s life was also at stake, with two serious tendon injuries interrupting his piloting career and prompting vets to say the gelding had been euthanized rather than rehabilitated.
Nick Embiricos, the horse’s owner, knew the chestnut was essential to Champion’s recovery and wouldn’t allow it, leaving one of the sport’s most endearing partnerships untouched when Champion was finally given the green light.
What happened next captured the world’s imagination, a four-length victory in the most famous race of all – an emotional triumph over doom that was then immortalized both on paper and on screen. .
Aldaniti had a 10-1 chance for the race, his main rival being the great hunter hunter Spartan Missile, ridden by John Thorne, but Champion kept complete confidence in his horse and had not even considered the possibility of defeat. .
“I was so confident to win it was amazing,” he said.
“You’re going to think I must be crazy 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 go really well after that. I couldn’t see myself getting beaten and I was right for once in my life!”
Aldaniti took the lead from the 11th hurdle and was not passed from there, jumping and traveling with perfect ease, but his stint in the race was very different from that envisioned by coach Josh Gifford.
“My orders were to hold him until the last fence,” said Champion.
“But I had the best run of the Canal Turn that anyone could have had in the race, ever, and everything went really well.
“I went from the 29th to jump in the front in three barriers, just around the Canal Turn, which is a very short distance.
“The only reason I invented this terrain is because I just did a better lap, I didn’t go any faster, and then when I hit the front jump for St. Valentin, all I can think of is the b ***** * ing I’m going up to the guv’nor bleachers for arriving too early!
“I realized I was there and going at my own pace, and I knew he was sticking and if I could put him in a good pace, he would jump for fun.
“He took me to a fence, I wasn’t the one who took him – he loved every second.”
‘I didn’t have time to celebrate’
Champion knew the agreed tactic had been abandoned by then and was already arming himself with examples of successful rides to justify his departure from the game plan to Gifford.
“All I could think of at the time was an apology as to why I’m there in the lead – I’ve been through five Red Rum Nationals in my head,” he said.
“So Bob Davies, when he won over Lucius, he took it too early and won anyway – I had all those excuses!
“I remember looking to one side and seeing Rubstic, who had won a few years before, and on my other side was Sebastian V, who was second the same year, so it was two more excuses.
“Finally, when I was two, I was like ‘I have to keep his head’ because his legs were like glass and keeping him in shape was the most important thing.
“So I thought, ‘I’m going to keep holding it together, just hold it together and not lose your temper’ – and it worked.
Despite the inevitable outpouring of admiration from all present, Champion’s spirit had already turned to the next race and so he had little time to bask in what he and his mount had just achieved. .
“When I thought about it, my first thought was: ‘I have done this for all the nurses and all the doctors at the Royal Marsden (hospital), and for the patients, to give them hope”, a- he said.
“It was then, basically it was just back to business. I was in another race an hour later so I didn’t have time to really celebrate.”
Changes, charity and the “ cup final ” of the race
It wasn’t until after the victory that its impact became clear, with an influx of donations catalyzing the creation of the Bob Champion Cancer Trust, a charity that has since raised over £ 15million to fund new research. on both forms of the disease. most likely to affect men – prostate and testicular cancer.
Champion’s philanthropy earned him a CBE in the 2021 New Year’s Honors, 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 me,” he said.
“But I didn’t come into the race thinking that ‘this is going to lead to the Bob Champion Cancer Trust’ or anything like that. I just wanted to get into the race and win it, because that was really my ambition for everyone. . of my life.
“Everything changed after that day, really.”
The Grand National is a race that moves audiences like no other, with many of the sport’s best known figures competing over famous fences and the wide open nature of the race drawing seasoned punters and novice spectators alike.
“This is the racing cup final,” is Champion’s analogy.
“There always seems to be a story involved – you have 40 runners, everyone in the country had their only bet a year on the Grand National.”
Champion cites the 1973 National as the most notable renewal of the race, with future three-time winner Red Rum claiming the first of his successes to the valiant Australian hunter Crisp, who carried a maximum weight of 12th.
“The first time I showed up was the Crisp against Red Rum National, and for me it was the best National ever,” he said.
“What a performance from Crisp – unbelievable from Richard Pitman – but unfortunately he was beaten.
“The red rum was only 10 pounds by 5 pounds, almost two stones less. It was great.”
The 1973 race is often listed among the sport’s most memorable moments, creating the kind of front-page cover that was recently achieved by Rachael Blackmore’s success at the Cheltenham Festival.
Champion watched in great awe as Blackmore won the title of the Festival’s first jockey, and is also impressed with Hollie Doyle’s rise to power on the Flat.
“Look at Rachael Blackmore – this is absolutely fantastic commercial for the race – and Hollie Doyle,” he said.
“These are two women who did a fantastic job for the race, and it’s great to see them do so well. They deserve their success.
“There are a lot of other women too, not just these two – there’s Bryony Frost too – but they’re doing a fantastic job.
“It’s a great advertisement for the race and they ride as well as the men.”
The champion will no doubt cheer Blackmore’s partner horse in this season’s big race, but he’s also confident that the favorite will come to the fore.
“The favorite is the one they have to beat, the horse Jonjo (O’Neill) – Cloth Cap,” he said.
“I was really impressed with him in Kelso, then the last time he just blew away.
“I think he’s the one they all need to beat – he jumps for fun, which is the main thing.
“You keep jumping, you win national championships.”
Cloth Cap jockey Tom Scudamore is part of a racing dynasty that has strong ties to the Grand National, which Champion believes victory would be even sweeter for the family.
“What a story it would be with Tom Scudamore, because Tom’s grandfather rode the National winner – Michael Scudamore,” he said.
“Then his dad (Peter) never won a National, but he and his partner (Lucinda Russell) formed a national winner, One For Arthur.
“Maybe it’s Tote’s hat-trick for them with Tom, that I’d love to see. It would be a great story, with all three generations, and they’re great people.”