Champion win still warms the heart as charities look to reap the reward
"About two weeks ago," ventured the maestro with his typical economy for words. He had remembered the criticism that the same so-called pundits had meted out 12 months previously when he deployed daring hold-up tactics to win the same race on the great Derby winner Sir Ivor. Extended conversation – normally no more than two sentences in Piggott's book – was definitely out of the question.
Yet Bob Champion, the last Yorkshire-born rider to win the Grand National, the world's most unpredictable and fearsome horse race, can go one better. Asked when he knew he would win the 1981 renewal, one of the most inspirational victories of all time, he said: "Three weeks before the off."
There is another difference. Piggott expected to win. So did his supporters. But no-one gave Champion a chance when he was diagnosed with testicular cancer, and when Aldaniti, his heroic horse, was struck down with a career-threatening injury.
"Winning the National, it was always my dream," Champion told the Yorkshire Post ahead of his 60:60 charity challenge that will see him visit the country's 60 racecourses in 60 days to raise funds for charity, and increase horse racing's profile.
"If I'd got my cancer 18 months earlier, I would have had no chance. Instead, the doctor gave me a 40 per cent chance. And I won. Now, anyone with testicular cancer has a 95 per cent chance of survival.
"Aldaniti had so many leg problems. Because he put 100 per cent into his jumping, he kept breaking down. Yet he was the horse who kept me going through the dark days because I knew he had a National in him.
"But three weeks beforehand, after we'd won at Ascot, that was when I thought – with luck – we'd win at Aintree. Honest. it was just getting us both to the start in one piece.
"I went to the races that morning – I'd had two bad falls that week and spent more time in the sauna and cold shower getting rid of the bruising – and Jonathan Powell, the journalist, said to me 'Well, you've got here Bob. No-one could ask for more'.
"I remember that I told Jonathan 'No way, Jonathan, I'm going to win'."
The result was one of the most famous – certainly the most emotional – Nationals of all time as Aldaniti held off the spirited challenge of the hunter chaser Spartan Missile, whose 54-year-old amateur jockey John Thorne was killed in a riding fall shortly afterwards.
His dream, however, nearly ended at the first fence. Aldaniti overpitched on landing, crumpled and Champion somehow kept the partnership alive (their precise fate 12 months later).
In 1981, Champion and Aldaniti even ended up leading after the first mile – far sooner than his governor Josh Gifford has instructed.
Yet Champion was such an astute judge of pace that it did not matter. Horse and jockey did not over-exert themselves as the real-life fairytale came true against the odds.
Champion does not tire of telling his story which, thus far, has raised 12m for his cancer charity. He was driven by the nurses who cared for him; the young cancer patients at London's Royal Marsden Hospital who gave him hope when he was riddled with despair. "They didn't quit, so why should I? They gave me a purpose."
He hopes to raise a further 250,000, to be shared with the Injured Jockeys Fund, from his round-Britain tour – a gruelling marathon for anyone, never mind a man who, more recently, has overcome a heart attack that he believes may have been allied to his original cancer treatment.
To him, the John Smith's Grand National is not just a horse race. It is his sport's shop window, the one day of the year when football, rugby and cricket scores are of secondary importance – even if the club involved is Champion's beloved Middlesbrough Football Club.
He is concerned, however, that horse racing is not devoted sufficient attention to the promotion of its leading personalities and champions – human and equine. A proliferation of fixtures is one reason.
It is why the 61-year-old, who grew up in Guisborough, will tour every racecourse in the country and, for 50, offer punters the chance to spend the day with him, go into a weighing room, meet some jockeys and walk the course.
"We've got to go out there and sell the sport," he said with force. "It's amazing that Tony McCoy, the 14-times champion jockey, cannot get shortlisted for BBC Sports Personality of the Year. He's fantastic. It astounds me. Locally, Andrew Tinkler is a cracking little rider – I used to ride against his dad Colin and stay with him – and James Reveley, whose family train a short distance from where I grew up, is another one to watch."
Champion's nearest racecourse, when he was growing up, was Redcar – a Flat track that merits a special place in his unrivalled triumph of hope and courage over despair.
He was seven. He had gone racing with two pals and when someone failed to turn up for a live interview with ITV commentator John Rickman, this intrepid trio appeared before the nation's TV cameras.
"The first boy, Howard Thompson, said he wanted to go into his dad's steel stockist business SM Thompson in Middlesbrough – and he did," recounts Champion.
"His brother, Derek, said he wanted to become a racing commentator – and has been very successful at it. And, when it came to me, I said I would win the Grand National. And I did." After a pause, Champion reflects on his great moment of triumph and his cancer battle. "Never in doubt, was it?"
Turning to this year's National, Champion believes the David Pipe-trained seven-year-old The Package ticks the right boxes. A narrow second in the William Hill Trophy at Cheltenham following a sublime Timmy Murphy ride, he says the horse would be "a hot favourite" if he had won at the National Hunt Festival.
Connections at the Pipe yard certainly agree. The vibes are certainly positive. And when did Champion decide his selection?
"Three weeks ago – the same as with Aldaniti. And, if I wasn't so old, and busy raising money, I wouldn't mind the ride myself."
DATES FOR THE BIG RACECOURSE TREK
THE Bob Champion Cancer Trust has raised 12m since it was founded in 1983 – that is approximately 400,000 for every fence of the National that Bob and Aldaniti jumped.
It was initially set up to research testicular cancer and has now evolved into prostate cancer, a disease that is expected to overtake both lung and breast cancer as the most commonly diagnosed cancer in the UK by 2018.
In an effort to raise funds for the charity, Champion will be attending 60 racecourses in 60 days around the country.
Champion will be at the following Yorkshire race meetings as part of his 60:60 challenge.
April 22: Beverley.
April 25: Wetherby.
May 1: Thirsk.
May 12: York.
May 16: Ripon.
May 28: Pontefract
June 4: Catterick.
June 5: Doncaster.
June 8: Redcar.
To register to join Bob at one of these courses, log onto the website www.champions6060.org.uk