Gifford’s gift for teaching prevails
Gifford, one of the great gentlemen of racing, stood by his then stable jockey when Champion, from Guisborough, North Yorkshire, was diagnosed with testicular cancer and given little hope of beating the disease.
At the same time, he nursed a stricken Aldaniti back to health, telling Champion during each visit to the Royal Marsden Hospital, London, that the horse was his to ride.
That was to culminate with a fairytale finish to the 1981 National, Aldaniti pulling clear of Spartan Missile and his amateur rider John Thorne, in a race that witnessed one of Sir Peter O’Sullevan’s most famous BBC commentaries and inspired the film Champions.
“He was a great jockey, a great trainer and a great man,” said Champion. “He was so loyal to his jockeys.”
While John Hurt portrayed Champion in the film, the acting great Edward Woodward played Gifford – with the inspirational musical accompaniment still used by the BBC each year prior to the National.
Last night racecourse executives added poignant tributes of their own. “It was with great sadness that we heard the news of Josh Gifford’s passing,” said managing director Julian Thick.
“Josh had brought Aldaniti back from injury and stayed loyal to Bob Champion through the jockey’s fight against cancer, and their victory together in the race remains as one of the most emotive and heroic Grand National wins ever witnessed.
“He will be missed greatly, and his contribution to the race will remain as one of the most iconic Grand National stories of our time.”
Racecourse chairman Lord Daresbury added: “Josh was a true gentleman; he was charming, witty, accomplished and very knowledgeable about horses and racing.
“I was lucky to have known him through George Sloan, who came over from America to be champion amateur and had horses with him – they were some pair together. Josh will be sadly missed by so many friends in England and America.”
Before starting his training career, Gifford was an accomplished jockey and was crowned champion on four occasions.
He had four Cheltenham Festival successes and finished second in the 1967 Grand National on Honey End behind the legendary 100-1 winner Foinavon.
Gifford had his first ride as a 12-year-old and his first winner came two years later in 1956 on Trentham Boy on the Flat. His first winner over jumps was at Wincanton in 1959.
As well as winning the National with Aldaniti, Gifford trained top-quality horses such as Door Latch, Deep Sensation, Bradbury Star and Katabatic.
He trained over 1,500 winners in his career before his son Nick took over the family’s stables in Sussex at the end of the 2002-03 season; Gifford senior ending his career on a winning note with Skycab prevailing at Sandown.
A great contemporary and rival of Terry Biddlecombe who is recovering from a stroke, Gifford, 70, was struck down with septicaemia last October. After making a recovery, his condition deteriorated on Wednesday night and he died from a heart attack.
Former stable jockey Richard Rowe rode most of Gifford’s best horses, and had visited his former boss only recently.
“It’s very sad news, I only went to see him last week. It was meant to be a brief visit, but it lasted three- and-a-half hours!” said Rowe.
“My time there was the best for both of our careers, he was a great man to work for. Some of the horses I rode for him were top-class. Kybo was the best, it was just unfortunate that he broke a leg before the Gold Cup. I was only talking about him with Josh last week.
“Then you look at the others like Door Latch, Royal Judgement, Deep Sensation and Bradbury Star that I rode in their early days, and I won a Schweppes on Deep Sensation.
“The reason my dad was so keen for me to join Josh was that he’d been a great jockey and he said there’d be no-one better to learn off – he was right.
“And so it’s been with my training, I often think ‘what would Josh do now’ and try to copy him. I couldn’t have wished for a better teacher.
“It would be a great tribute if Tatenen (trained by Rowe) could win the Racing Plus Chase at Kempton at the end of the month, it would be very fitting.”