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Sports Articles: Sporting Fairytales Part 2: National Champions

Sporting Fairytales Part 2: National Champions
Image from: freelargeimages.com

Sporting Fairytales Part 2 - National Champions


If ever a story sums up a true sporting fairytale, it is this one of Bob Champion and Aldaniti winning the Grand National. It has spawned a movie, with Aldaniti playing himself, and yet still somehow seems unbelievable that the pair could go through so much and be able to race, let alone win.

Bob was born in Sussex in 1948, but soon after his birth the family moved north to Guisborough in Yorkshire, where he grew up. As youngster he would go to the cinema and watch Pathe news coverage of the Grand National, "I'd be about eight or nine but every time I saw it, I'd see it as the race of fairy tales. I still do." It inspired a dream of being a jockey in him but it was not until he left school, at the age of 15, and was sent to live on a Wiltshire fame owned by Arthur Corp that he got the chance to achieve it.

He was there to attend Trowbridge Technical College because he had shown an aptitude for anything mechanical but Arthur kept a couple of point-to-point horses in training and Bob was given the chance to ride them in point-to-point races. His first ride was not a success, Bob was thrown into a bed of nettles, but he perservered riding his first winner in March. There Champion was spotted by Peter Calver, who saw him as a promising young jockey and arranged for him to join a close friend's team in August.

The team Bob joined was that of Toby Balding, a legendary trainer who provided Adrian Maguire and Tony McCoy their first jobs in England, and the uncle of TV presenter Clare. Just one day into Bob's time in the Balding stable when he was being helped up onto a horse called Dozo when the horse reared over backwards and broke Bob's ankle. Balding was not ready to give up on him just yet and gave him work in the office while it healed and he was back riding in October.

An outbreak of foot and mouth disease saw racing suspended for a while and Bob returned to racing in January on a horse known to be dangerous called Altercation. The 20/1 outsider won at Plumpton and Bob did such a champion job (I apologise for the terrible pun) that he was given another ride on Altercation two weeks later. That time around was not so successful and the horse jumped badly, falling at the 9th and Bob ended up in hospital with concussion.

By mid-April 1968, after Bob had ridden 8 winners in 60 rides, the licensing stewards had noticed Champion and, refusing to believe he was a genuine amateur they withdrew his license. Balding appealed on his behalf and his license was restored, but as a professional jockey now and he made his first ride as a professional on 13th May 1968, riding Sailor's Collar at Wye. And he won. In February of the following year Champion won Newcastle's Eider Chase on Highland Wedding, but then had to sit at home and watch on TV as it made its next outing under the more experienced Eddie Harty at the Grand National. The horse won again, which no doubt increased Bob's desire to win at Aintree himself one day.

It was just two days into the 1970-71 season when Bob broke his ankle once more, though he was soon back in the saddle by 1972 the wins had dried up and he left Toby Balding's stable to go freelance. After working out Monty Stevens' horses, Stevens offered him a retainer and he got his first winner for his new stable on 3rd August riding Winden at Devon and Exeter. Other trainers also began to use as he resurrected his career that season, winning 29 times in 227 rides.

Then came the moment that changed everything as trainer Josh Gifford's stable jockey Doug Barrott was sadly killed in a race fall in 1973. Gifford decided on Champion as Barrott's replacement. It was there Bob met Aldaniti. Aldaniti, whose name came from breeder Tommy Barron's four grandchildren, AListair, DAvid, NIcola and TImothy, was bought by Nick Embiricos for 3,200 guineas and given to Gifford to train. In 1977 Bob rode Aldaniti in the Hennessy Cognac Gold Cup and finished third, but Bob was convinced the horse was a future Grand National winner.

Injury problems plagued Aldaniti, who missed the whole of 1976 and 1978 with serious injuries, but Champion still had faith in him and the horse emerged as a top-class steeplechaser in the second half of the 1978/79 National Hunt season. He came third in the Gold Cup and second in the Scottish Grand National to put himself in the forefront of the best horses in the UK.

Bob had meanwhile been enjoying success racing in America, as well as in the UK, before riding Fury Boy at Stratford's evening meeting on Friday 11th May 1979. He was 200 yards clear of Turo at the final fence but got it wrong and fell. Champion was slightly winded but got to his feet quickly to catch the horse, who kicked out catching Bob painfully in the groin. Despite being in agony, he was still a winner and scrambled back onto the horse, getting going in time to win by 20 lengths, his final win of the season.

With the National Hunt season over in Britain, Champion flew to the States, mainly to ride Casamayor in an international race organised by his friend Hugo Bevan. While there Bob, who was well known for being a 'lady's man' (probably should be ladies' rather than lady's) and for his tempestous love affairs, met and bedded a vet. Afterwards Champion told her that he was worried about a swelling he had on his testicles after the kick from Fury Boy. She advised him to go to the doctor immediately.

Bob went to the doctors and was diagnosed with cancer but resed to believe the diagnosis, insisting there must have been a mistake and so, on his return to England, he went to the Royal Marsden Hospital where two specialists confirmed that he had a tumour. A battery of tests on Champion in July 1979 revealed that there were more issues than just the malignant tumour on his testicle. After having the testicle removed he had a second operation in August, which removed part of a rib and revealed that the cancer had spread to the lymph glands in his chest.

He was given just six to eight months to live, with the only option a new and intensely painful form of chemotherapy, which needed to be started immediately. However Bob prevaricated and even said: "If I'm to die, I'd rather it happens while I do something I love rather than wasting away in a hospital bed." In time he changed his mind and began treatment. He was helped by Josh Gifford's words, who promised him that his job as stable jockey would be waiting for him when he returned to health. The thought of riding Aldaniti in the National became his ray of hope to hold onto.

Thus it was that he went to Sandown in November 1979 to watch Aldaniti run, when the horse crashed out of the race and broke his hock. The leg injury was so serious that the vets advised that Aldaniti should be put down but both Gifford and the owner Nick Embiricos said that the horse must be kept alive at all costs as it might be all that was keeping Champion going. Neither believed the horse would ever race again, but they knew Bob needed that dream to keep going. Champion himself admitted: "Mentally I was in a terrible state. Aldaniti's lameness made me give up fighting for a couple of weeks..."

Josh Gifford was so determined to keep Bob's hope alive he took sole control of Aldaniti's recovery, after the horse had spent 6 months stuck in a box in plaster, Gifford would ride him out every day. Aldaniti was known for pulling hard and being a bit of a handful, so Gifford would trust no one else to do the work. Bob had meanwhile had some good news with the tumour in his chest gone by the end of January 1980 and he set his sights on riding in the Grand National that year.

Unfortunately Bob suffered a setback as a large-scale infection nearly claimed his life and in mid-February he and fellow jockey Ian Watkinson flew out to Miami to convalesce. Watkinson had suffered severe head injuries in a race fall. While there Champion began riding again but his fitness was gone and he suffered terrible back pain each night. Bob began jogging to increase his fitness levels on the advice of a friend. Then a meal and drinks with friends in the US led to a chance to race once more. One of the friends was a trainer called Jonathan Sheppard who had Double Reefed running in a flat race at Fairhill the next day and Sheppard asked Bob to ride it.

On Saturday 31st May 1980 Bob was back racing just a few months after his treatment began. The fairytale story could easily have ended here as Champion won his first race back after cancer to huge celebrations and was doused in buckets of cold water by the rest of the jockeys! It was just 4 days before his 32nd birthday and the 357th winner of his career. He returned to racing in the UK on Saturday 30th August as massed ranks of the press attended hoping for a similar fairytale ending at Stratford. Sadly Bob was riding a horse called Roadhead, who carried top weight despite not having raced recently and the horse faded at the end of the race to finish 4th.

Finally, on 23rd September, the biggest cheer ever to be heard at Fontwell came when Bob got his first win on his return to the UK on Physicist. Now his target was the 1981 Grand National, but Aldaniti had yet to return to action. In fact the horse only managed to race once in over a year ahead of the '81 National, when he raced at the Whitbread Trial Handicap Chase in February, just a couple of months prior to the National. Starting at 16-1, Aldaniti absolutely flew to see his price drop for the National itself. He had been a rank outsider, but he was now set at 66-1, which soon came down and down as every one of those yearly punters that only bet on the National, put their money on the Champion/Aldaniti pairing pulling off the impossible.

In the weeks leading up to the race itself, Bob spent most of his time doing interviews, as the media interest in the story ramped up ahead of the race. "For about 3 weeks before the race, I could hardly go anywhere without talking to reporters. Even on National day itself, I was dragged down to do an interview by Becher's Brook, which helped me in a way because it got me out of the cauldron of the weighing room, gave me a bit of space." Bob did find time to take Aldaniti for a run out on the morning before and he told Gifford that the horse was in the best condition he had known.

Gifford had inspected the first three fences and it was decided that Aldaniti should stick to the outside, running wide there as the going was better and play a waiting game in the race itself. Despite only running once all year, Aldaniti would be starting as second favourite behind Spartan Missile, ridden by John Thorne. Thorne was a 54 year old grandfather who was also the breeder, owner and trainer of Spartan, on top of being an amateur jockey, but he was seen as the weak link, despite the pairing having finished 4th in the Gold Cup.

The horses lined up and then they were off, but it almost ended at the first fence as Aldaniti landed badly, dropping to his knees and forcing Champion to hang on for dear life before he got back to his feet. At this point Bob must have feared the worst, having twice before fallen at the first in his attempts at the National. At the second it was a similar story and the horse scraped his belly before getting himself going. By the 5th Aldaniti was jumping beautifully and Bob threw aside the agreement to play a waiting game, letting the horse take the lead after Canal Turn.

He was still leading as they headed towards the third from home, from Royal Mai, with Spartan Missile coming up fast behind them both. Clearing the final hurdle, Spartan was 10 lengths behind and closing fast but Aldaniti somehow found the strength to keep going and win to a massive cheer from the stands as Bob finally got his National win. It was a genuine fairytale ending and the pair won the BBC Sports Personality of the Year Team award too.

The following year the duo lined up at the start once more but lightning was not to strike twice and they fell at the first this time, Aldaniti's first fall in 28 races. The horse went into retirement from racing, though he did play himself in the film 'Champions' that was made starring John Hurt about Bob's National win. Bob went on to form the Bob Champion Cancer Trust in 1983 and has raised millions for cancer research, despite a couple of heart attacks. Aldaniti would often be there for fund raisers too, until his death from old age in 1997.

In the history of the Grand National, in fact in sport in general, there will be very few, if any, stories to compare to that of Bob and Aldaniti. The cancer victim and crippled horse recovering together to win the toughest race in their sport, what fairytale could ever match that?


To read the first part in the Sporting Fairytales series Hellas Verona Winning Serie A, click here.

Written by Tris Burke August 31 2020 09:02:22