BOB Champion is in dreamland as he rides Aldaniti towards the famous Grand National winners’ enclosure after completing one of the miracles of all sport. He has longed for this moment, and police escort, since cinema trips as a child to watch footage of the world’s ultimate steeplechase. And then he spots Carol and Jenny, two of the cancer nurses from the Royal Marsden Hospital in London who lifted his spirits when he wanted to go home and die.
He and Aldaniti are finally nearing the characterful old weighing room where one sporting dream is realised each year. And then Champion recognises Ian McKenzie, his form master from Guisborough Secondary Modern School. “The day I won the National, I can remember two things more than the race,” Champion, 72, tells The Yorkshire Post ahead of the 40th anniversary of Aldaniti’s tearjerking win.
“I see the two nurses that looked after me in hospital and then Mr McKenzie with his thumbs up. I hadn’t seen him in years, but he’s the one who told me to follow my dream.”
Here were three of the people who meant the world to Champion in addition to his family and lifelong friends like Derek Thompson, the racing broadcaster, and the latter’s brother Howard.
They never once lost belief in Champion whose love of riding stems from generations of huntsmen in his family. As the young Champion’s confidence in the saddle grew – jumping a five-barred gate on his pony because he was too lazy to open the gate helped – his fascination with the National intensified. This explains formative trips to the Odeon or Embassy cinemas in Guisborough to watch Pathé News footage of the Aintree race – electricity did not arrive at the Champion family’s North Yorkshire farm until December 1960.
The excitement captivated him. “Everyone used to talk about the National and it became my ambition, since Mum and Dad took me to Redcar races as a seven or eight-year-old, to ride in it and be led back by the police horses,” he recalls.
Riding soon became his life. It explains why the aforementioned ‘‘Mr McKenzie’’ turned a blind eye to Champion’s fictional excuses and forged letters purporting to be from his parents in return for some tips and a blemish-free end-of-term attendance report.
This, says Champion, was in contrast with the careers officer who had two suggestions – the then Dorman Long Steelworks in Middlesbrough or Skinningrove Mines deep under the North Sea working with the pit ponies. He was terrified of becoming trapped.
“The careers officer had a lot of power in those days. You used to listen to them. Mr McKenzie was a great man. He told me to ignore the careers officer.”
Champion left school – and North Yorkshire – on his 15th birthday to work for an uncle and, in turn, join the then top National Hunt trainer Toby Balding (uncle to TV’s Clare Balding). His early successes included Newcastle’s Eider Chase on Highland Wedding who would then win the National weeks later under the more experienced Eddie Harty.
Champion’s National dream was, by now, burning even stronger as he became established, in the 1970s, as a top jump jockey. He would ultimately team up with Josh Gifford in Sussex whose horses included a chaser called Aldaniti who was bred in North Yorkshire by Tommy Barron and named after his four grandchildren – Alastair, David, Nicola and Timothy.
But his life would change in August 1979 when he returned from a riding holiday in America mildly irritated by a lump on one of his testicles. Two operations later – and his worst fears were confirmed. Testicular cancer – and it had already spread into the lymph glands in his chest.
The Royal Marsden doctors sat him down. “They said I had two choices – either a new form of chemotherapy which gave me a 30 per cent chance of living, or four, five or six months at best,” says Champion. “The odds weren’t great. I felt fine and thought ‘with a bit of luck, I will get killed on the racecourse’. The doctor looked at me. ‘Bob, you’re not a bad novice chase jockey. I’m giving you a 6-4 chance. You would ride it?’ That’s how they convinced me. Using betting odds.”
Even now, Champion shudders to recall the debilitating horror of chemotherapy at a time when a cancer diagnosis was, for a great many people, a death sentence. He was a pioneer. Yet he had no one to draw strength from; just the encouragement of loved ones and the Aldaniti dream if the old chaser overcame career-ending leg injuries.
Champion goes on: “I was giving up one day, I went to Jenny and Carol. ‘I’ve had enough, I’m going home. Take the cannula off me’, I told them. ‘Bob’, they told me, ‘go and have a walk and think about it’. That’s when I ended up on the children’s ward. I saw the kids having chemo without making a fuss and I was thoroughly ashamed of myself. I went back and asked to carry on. If I hadn’t gone through the kids’ ward, I wouldn’t be here today.”
The legacy of that soul-searching is the Bob Champion Cancer Trust that was set up by Aldaniti’s devoted owner Nick Embiricos when punters started sending their National ‘‘winnings’’ to the Gifford stables. It has raised £15m to fund a research laboratory at the Royal Marsden in Surrey and a facility at the University of East Anglia that specialises in male cancers. Champion received the CBE in the New Year honours and there are many people alive today thanks to his win.
As for the National, connections are indebted to the police telling Gifford to take Aldaniti up to Liverpool a day earlier because of a foot-and-mouth outbreak. “They were on our side. The horse overjumped the first, stood too far back at the second and the old horse put in an extra stride at the third, a big open ditch. From that fence onwards, he was a steering job,” recalls Champion.
Only recently did he discover a photo of Aldaniti soaring over Becher’s Brook and appearing to stumble on landing. “Christ, I was nearly on the ground, but it never felt like that to me because we were travelling at 30mph,” says the jockey.
Now the racing fates were on his side, and the only threat was the rallying Spartan Missile on the agonising run-in. “I thought of two things,” says Champion. “The first was ‘We’ve done this for all the nurses and the people in hospital’, the next was ‘What a way to retire’.”
Champion did not. He and Aldaniti fell at the first fence in the 1982 National and the jockey hung up his saddle later that year. Even now, Bob Champion is a reluctant hero thanks to a teacher’s encouragement, a medical miracle and a faithful horse called Aldaniti: “Hopefully, I’ve given the odd person some hope.” He’s done more than that.
See www.bobchampion.org.uk for further details about the Bob Champion Cancer Trust’s work and fundraising.
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