Bob Champion’s fairytale Grand National win was made possible thanks to his enduring friendship with Derek Thompson. Tom Richmond reports.
IT still haunts Derek Thompson that he was not at Aintree on the momentous day when his childhood and lifelong friend Bob Champion won the most emotional Grand National in history on the heroic Aldaniti after conquering cancer.
He was working for ITV at his local track Teesside Park – and had to content himself with a phone call from an elated Champion an hour after riding into immortality in 1981 on a surge of public emotion. “You weren’t very good on telly today,” the jockey told his friend who is affectionately known as ‘Tommo’. “You can’t afford to keep making mistakes.”
The most famous person in Britain on a never-to-be-forgotten afternoon – and he’s admonishing his pal for an instantly forgettable slip of the tongue at a minor meeting rather than soaking up the adulation.
They are heartfelt words that Thompson, one of the most recognisable faces and voices of horse racing, has never forgotten in his own broadcasting career, and which has now seen him evoke Champion’s spirit in order to win his own epic duel with cancer.
These are two enduring friends who grew up riding ponies across the North York Moors and whose lives have been intertwined ever since.
Yet, despite his disappointment at not being an eye-witness to a sporting fairytale, Thompson was there when it truly mattered – the night that his friend could not face the prospect of another bout of debilitating chemotherapy treatment for testicular cancer.
As Champion stared out of the fifth floor window of the London hotel room which they were sharing when Thompson’s broadcasting career was in its infancy, he said: “I’m going to end it all.”
Thompson says that his friend was “genuinely suicidal” and his flippant response – “don’t be so bloody stupid” – indicated a lack of understanding about the plight of cancer sufferers. Asked for the odds that he would have given on his frail friend beating cancer, and then winning the National on an injury-ravaged horse, Thompson’s response puts this fateful night into perspective.
“A trillion, billion, billion to one,” he tells the Yorkshire Post. “Absolutely no chance. It was 60-40 whether he would survive. Decent odds, but not great ones. To come back and win on a horse that they were going to shoot, it is the greatest sporting story of all in the world bar none.
“I’ve seen The Great Escape and The Dambusters. They’re impressive acts of bravery and I take nothing away from them, but I’ve never seen anything like this. It wasn’t the cancer that was killing Bob – it was the treatment. It was brutal in the extreme.
“I would go to the hospital and say ‘you’ve got to keep walking’ to help the muscles, but he couldn’t move. He could hardly move his head. I don’t think he would have come through without Josh Gifford, the great trainer, promising him the ride on Aldaniti.”
Thompson’s candour stems from a continuing desire to support the Bob Champion Cancer Trust that was formed 30 years ago and which has raised £15m for lifesaving research.
It has been some ride since the young “Tommo” first sat on a pony at the age of two. Though born in Stockton-on-Tees, he regards himself as “an adopted Yorkshireman” – and says he “always thinks about” home when he gets on the A1 at Newmarket, where he currently lives, and sees a sign pointing the way to “The North”. His father Stanley ran a successful steel business in Middlesbrough while his mother Lillian was steeped in civic life in Nunthorpe, becoming deputy mayor of Teesside and escorting the Queen when she visited the region for her Silver Jubilee in 1977.
It meant the Thompsons had sufficient money – just – to buy ponies for the young Derek and his brother Howard, who now runs the family firm. And it was riding with the Cleveland Hounds where the pair met a young Bob Champion from Guisborough.
They would ride together at local shows – Tommo still treasures the photo of him in full flight at Otley Show – and ride up Roseberry Topping.
Yet it was an afternoon out at Redcar races that provided a foretaste of the future for this trio from Guisborough Grammar School.
Not shy, they were inevitably drawn to the ITV broadcast position where John Rickman was presenting the coverage. The three pals were soon making their television debuts and were asked what they wanted to do when they were older. A natural raconteur,Thompson takes up the story: “Howard said he wanted to take over his father’s firm, and he did. Bob said he wanted to be a jockey, and he was. And I said I wanted to be the next Peter O’Sullevan.”
There was a certainly inevitability to the latter – his own riding career was memorable for its falls, though he did once beat Prince Charles in a charity race.
He learned his broadcasting trade with the then Radio Teesside before joining the BBC’s growing sports team in London, a career break that would take him to Aintree for the 1973 National when a horse called Red Rum emerged from a different county to collar the leg-weary Crisp in the shadow of the winning post.
Part of the radio commentary team, Tommo’s first words did not inspire confidence – “Three fences have fallen at that horse” – but he was word perfect on the second circuit, noting presciently how “Red Rum is reducing the lead” as he handed on to the great Peter Bromley to describe an epic finish.
There is an irony that it was Champion who saw the job advert that led to Thompson joining ITV in January 1981 – just weeks before Aldaniti’s fairytale win – and him being at the now defunct Stockton racetrack on the day that racing wept so many tears of joy when the unthinkable happened.
It is a measure of this enduring friendship – Tommo then enjoyed a seamless transition to Channel Four Racing before his contract was ended last year – that Champion was on the phone to his close pal after his epic win.
“After we’d gone off air, I raced to mum’s to watch the race. We were in bits and then the phone goes. This, remember, is decades before the mobile phone is invented. It’s Bob. He’s just won the National and he’s telling me ‘If you want to stay on television, you’ve got to buck your ideas up’. I’d been there for Bob and now he was looking out for his friend.”
Three decades on, after a broadcasting career that saw Thompson take part in a failed attempt to persuade the IRA to release the kidnapped Derby winner Shergar, it was Champion who was there for his friend when he was told at the outset of Royal Ascot in 2011 that he had bowel cancer. Typically for such an outward-going individual, Thompson, now 63, was reluctant to allow his treatment to detract from his racing duties – and covering the career of the world-beating Frankel.
“Bob, he was always there for me,” he said. “When you have a friend like that, it gives you extra inspiration to beat it. The NHS and the hospitals, they’re the real heroes of this country. My youngest son Jim was in Jimmy’s hospital in Leeds for three months when he was a baby. He had a kidney taken out. He plays rugby union for Scotland with one kidney. I know how good the NHS is. People getting MBEs for singing songs. That’s not right. The nurses and surgeons should be getting these awards – look at how the treatment has changed.
“When I went into hospital, I was sitting doing my work, using my iPad and doing deals on the phone. Hospital in the morning, open a betting shop at lunchtime and more treatment in the afternoon.
“I didn’t have an Aldaniti like Bob. I have to keep Tommo going and Tommo has to keep me going. But there was a day when I had a bad turn – it was like a scene from Casualty with machines everywhere – and I come round and there’s Bob saying ‘you gave us a bit of a fright there’.”
There was one other person who enabled Thompson to draw strength in his race for life – the incomparable Sir Henry Cecil. As Cecil trained Frankel while fighting his own battle with the cancer that would claim his life in June, he would whisper words of encouragement to Tommo.
Their friendship led to one of the most poignant pieces of sports broadcasting when a pencil-thin Cecil spoke to Thompson live on Channel Four minutes after the fabulous Frankel had won York’s Juddmonte International in August 2012.
“I was telling my boss that he could hardly talk – I knew – but they wanted him on air that moment. I said in a whisper to Henry whether he would speak to me if I spoke in hushed tones. He agreed and it was one of my best ever interviews. He said Frankel’s win had made him feel 10 years better,” he revealed. It was one race – and one encounter – that Derek Thompson was not going to miss.
Tommo: Too Busy To Die by Derek Thompson is published by the Racing Post, price £20. To order from the Yorkshire Post Bookshop call 01748 821122.
A scary role in Shergar saga
DEREK Thompson’s profile meant that he was one of the racing journalists who became intermedaries between the police and the IRA gang suspected of kidnapping the legendary Epsom Derby winner Shergar in 1983.
One of the scariest events of his life, he is convinced that the people he was speaking to by telephone from Belfast’s Europa Hotel were part of the gang because one of the codenames used was ‘King Neptune’. He was involved in clandestine meetings with people on the periphery of the case.
“Many years later, the IRA supergrass Sean O’Callaghan wrote in a book that the organisation had indeed been responsible for the Shergar kidnap,” he said. “One of the codenames he used was ‘King Neptune’. That convinces me I had been dealing with one of the real kidnappers.”
Thompson believes the horse was killed shortly after his capture from the Aga Khan’s stud. He says the mystery will never be solved but Shergar’s name will not be forgotten.
‘Please don’t think the man you see on the racecourse is a fake’
ASKED to name his favourite racecourse, Derek Thompson’s response is indicative of his infectious personality – and his love of the sport.
“The next one I go to,” he told the Yorkshire Post before mentioning the enduring charm and beauty of York which he then names as one of “the finest tracks in the world”.
Yet, while his work as a racecourse compere has supplanted his three-decade long TV career that came to an abrupt halt when he was controversially axed last December as part of Channel Four Racing’s underwhelming revamp, he questions the wisdom of racing’s decision to sever its last links with the BBC at the end of 2012.
He is not the only well-known face to be marginalised – betting pundit John McCririck is currently involved in a protracted high-profile legal battle with Channel Four after claiming that he was axed on the grounds on ageism.
However it is the bigger picture that perturbs Thompson whose easy-going manner, quips and pub banter contrasted with the stuffiness of the self-absorbed form anoraks talking to themselves.
“All I can say is the viewing figures are absolutely dramatically down in the past nine months,” he revealed.
“Channel Four may be happy, but I don’t think racing can be. It is a shame that there is not the competition that used to exist with the BBC.
“I don’t think they’re providing the type of coverage that the public want. I may be wrong, and they may be right, but the viewing figures are down by 70 per cent. I’ll leave it at that.”
Thompson was speaking just hours after being the focal point of a James Bond-themed raceday at Uttoxeter racecourse.
He was in his element – a “hey big fella” for every gentleman dressed like Bond and an affectionate smile, and warm embrace, for their female companions.
A man with a quip for every eventuality, he makes people feel important – whether they’re leading racehorse owners to the stable lass leading up a horse. That’s what makes him so different to his peers. And so appealing.
For, unlike some, he says horse racing needs to accept that it is in the “entertainment” business and that it is actually competing with other sports like football and both codes of rugby for the public’s custom.
“Yes, we need to do more – most emphatically,” he said. “I was at the Riverside Stadium the other night when Middlesbrough played Huddersfield.
“It was one-each, the match was meandering, and it was announced there were four minutes of extra time. ‘Come on’, I said to myself. ‘Football can do better than this’.
“So can racing. There are 30 minutes between races – we need to entertain the people. It’s why I ask punters to put their losing betting tickets in a bucket and then pull one out and the lucky recipient gets a prize. Every loser can be a winner with Tommo. That’s the spirit.
“It’s why I persuaded Uttoxeter to agree to give free admission to their next meeting if AP McCoy, the greatest jump jockey and possibly the greatest jockey – Flat and jumps – of all time, rode three winners. He’s just short of 4,000 winners and it helped to generate some interest. We need to make the most of this. We will never see his like again.”
Thompson freely admits that his “ho-ho-ho” persona can be at odds with the introverted individual that has endured a turbulent private life – his present partner Julie is his third wife.
“I am Derek but I am also Tommo,” he explains. “I am one but I am also the other. Tommo is what you see. Derek is saved for those closest to me. Please don’t think the man you see on the television, or at a racecourse, is a fake. He is not. I do not pretend to be anything when I am at work. What you see is me being me.
“When my critics suggest that Tommo is an act, they are accusing me of trying to pull the wool over people’s eyes, which I would never do. I am just a working class lad from Middlesbrough. When I go home, that part of me rests, but show me a microphone and I can snap back into action in an instant. I love it. It is why I am too young to die.”