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I met Bob Champion at the 'Collectormania 15' event held at the MK Dons football ground in Milton Keynes, in June 2009.
Bob's win in the 1981 Grand National is one of the greatest stories in sporting history, a real triumph over adversity.
He signed three photographs for me and I had my photo taken with this truly inspirational man.
Bob Champion was born in 1948 in North Yorkshire, where his father, an ex-soldier, was a Huntsman with the famous Cleveland Hunt. Bob has a younger sister Mary. Initially, Bob developed a dislike of horses after his pony threw him into a bed of stinging nettles!
By the time he was ten, he was riding again, and confidently jumping over gate
Bob regarded school as a nuisance, and showed no interest in it, so his father sent him to study engineering at Trowbridge College in Wiltshire, where he could also live and work on his uncle's farm. Uncle Arthur trained point-to-point horses and when Bob was fifteen he won a race on one of them.
Bob (centre) with his huntsman father and sister
gates and hedges. He became a fearless rider and spent every spare minute he had on a horse.
Bob's first win aged 15
When he was nineteen, Bob joined rac
racehorse trainer Toby Balding as an amateur jockey in his stables in Hampshire. He remained there for five years, during which time he won around forty races, picking up numerous injuries on the way.
However, he felt that he was not getting enough racing opportunities and left in 1972 to go freelance, eventually riding for many top trainers. Within two years, he was established as a tough, professional jockey, including sixth place behind Red Rum in the 1973 Grand Nati
Josh Gifford, Aldaniti & Bob Champion
National. That season, Bob rode 29 winners from his 227 rides. In
In 1973, Bob joined former champion jockey, and later a trainer, Josh Gifford, as his stable jockey, at Gifford's stables in the village of Findon, West Sussex.
Bob Champion aged 19
For the next six years, Bob Champion rode plenty of winners for Gifford, who had many good horses in his yard. He also had rides each year in the Grand National without success.
In 1974, Gifford bought a horse called Aldaniti (a name formed fro
from the names of the breeder's grandchildren (Alastair, David, Nicola and Timothy) which won its first race at Ascot in 1975, ridden by Bob Champion.
Bob Champion winning a race on Kybo
Gifford then sold the horse to businessman Nick Embiricos. Bob Champion rode the horse in fourteen further races over the next three years, with three wins, three seconds and two thirds, in the last of which (the Hennessy Gold Cup), he was injured and spent seven months confined to his stable. During the 1978-79 season (when the owner, trainer and jockey all thought they had a horse capable of winning the Grand Nati
National), Bob rode Aldaniti in seven more races, the last a winner at Haydock in 1979. Then Bob Champion discovered that he had life-threatening cancer, and had to stop riding.
Bob & Aldaniti win at Haydock (1979)
.....and Ascot (1981)
The film Champions (starring John Hurt as Bob Champion) powerfully shows the dark days of the jockey's fight against cancer
During his painful treatment at the Royal Marsden Hospital, Bob was told by Josh Gifford that his job at Findon would be there when he had recovered, and that he would ride Aldaniti in the Grand National. For Bob Champion, the very thought of winning the National on this hor
horse became an inspiration as he underwent his third course of chemotherapy. It actually took six courses of treatment to get rid the cancer, and by the time of the 1980 Grand National he was in no condition to take part - but then neither was Aldaniti, who went lame in a race at Sandown in November 1979. So
Poignant scene from Champions where Aldaniti is lame
and may have to be destroyed
bad was the injury that the vet recommended that the horse be put down. Nick Embiricos and his wife Valda wouldn't hear of this and Aldaniti spent all of 1980 recuperating at his owner's Sussex home. Meanwhile, Bob Champion had left hospital in January that year. The illness and the chemotherapy had left him bald and so weak he could hardly stand. However, with Aldaniti giving Bob the will to live and race again, he had beaten the disease, and began a gruelling training regime
he returned to his old job as Gifford's stable jockey. A month later he rode a winner at Fontwell. The future was looking good again!
By 1981, both Bob Champion and Aldaniti were fit again
to regain his full fitness. By August 1980
Aldaniti too had recovered and, in February 1981 Champion rode the horse again to win a 3-mile race at Ascot. All was now set for the Grand National in April 1981 to be run over the daunting fences at Aintree Racecourse.
Aldaniti, carrying 10st 13lbs, was the 10-1 second favourite of thirty-nine runners. Aldaniti's main danger was the race favourite Spartan Missile, bred, owned, trained and ridden by 54-year-old John Thorne.
Aldaniti before the start of the race
Bob Champion on Aldaniti
The race beagan and Aldaniti nearly came to grief at the very first fence! "As we came to the fence Aldaniti stood off far too far away, pinged it but came down much too steep. He was on the ground, his nose and knees scraping the grass. I thought we'd had it." They hadn't. Aldaniti recovered his balance and sped on.
Aldaniti jumps the final fence in the
1981 Grand National
After the third fence, Aldaniti's jumping was exemplary, and by the eleventh he was in the lead. There he remained, taking each of the feared Aintree fences like 'Becher's Brook' and 'the Chair' in his stride. After Aldaniti and Champion had cleared the last of
the 30 fences, and with other horses in hot pursuit, they set off up the run-in which the jockey later described as 'the loneliest place in the world'. Aldaniti kept up his gallop, with Champion waving his whip as he passed the winning post, four lengths ahead of Spartan Missile, with Royal Mail third.
Aldaniti, Royal Mail & Spartan Missile race for the line in the 1981 Grand National
Champion had beaten cancer and his horse, twice very badly injured, had galloped all of his other rivals into submission.
Watched by sixty thousand
thousand at Aintree, and 750 million on TV worldwide, the miracle had happened - Bob Champion
Aldaniti winning the 1981 Grand National
Aldaniti returns to the Winner's Enclosure
The 1981 Grand National has gone down in history as one of the most emotional, and inspirational races ever run. As Bob said afterwards, "I rode this race for all the patients in hospital, and all the people who look after them. My only wish is that my winning shows them that there is always hope, and all battles can be won."
Bob Champion and Aldaniti returned to Josh Gifford's stable in Findon village to a hero's welcome. The whole village, along with thousands of visitors, turned out to see the horse and his jockey.
Aldaniti returns to Findon, to a hero's welcome
Bob Champion and Aldaniti
The whole of Bob Champion's amazing story was told in the fabulous feature film Champions (1984), starring John Hurt as Bob Champion, and Aldaniti as himself.
Jan Francis, Bob Champion, John Hurt &
Jo Beswick during the filming of Champions
Aldaniti was ridden by John Burke for the
Aldaniti ran in the National again the following year, but was one of 10 horses that fell at the first fence! He was retired and, for the next 15 years until his death in 1997 aged 27, helped to raise over six million pounds for the Bob Champion Cancer Trust which Bob founded in 1983 and for which he has worked tirelessly ever
ever since. The heartwarming story of Aldaniti's early years and his racing career is told in Liz Tresilian's book Aldaniti, published in 1984.
Bob Champion retired as a race jockey in 1983, after having won around 500 races including the Hennessy Cognac Gold Cup at Newbury in 1978 on Josh Gifford's fantastic horse Approaching.
Bob Champion signed this photo to me
In 1981, Bob Champion collaborated with his friend, the racing journalist Jonathan Powell, to write the book Champion's Story.
Painting of Aldaniti & Bob Champion by Peter Curling
Bob Champion was awarded the MBE in 1983 and the following year formed the Bob Champion Cancer Trust which has raised millions of pounds for cancer research.
In August 1996, Bob undertook the Ride for Life in which he rode on several horses (including Aldaniti) from Holyrood Palace in Edinburgh to Buckingham Palace in London, where he was greeted by the Queen. The event raised over a million pounds which was put towards the new Research Unit (opened in 2000) at the Royal Marsden Hospital.
Bob Champion on Aldaniti outside Holyrood Palace at the
start of the 1996 Ride for Life
The Queen talks to Bob Champion
The Bob Champion Cancer Trust
The Bob Champion Cancer Trust
Be sure to visit Valerie Martin's fascinating website about Findon. It has lots of information about the racing life of the village, with images of Aldaniti, Bob Champion, Josh Gifford and many others.
Bob Champion & Aldaniti
Bob Champion signed this photo of the 1981 Grand National