‘We were in tears of joy’: what it was like to look after Grand National winner Aldaniti according to his groom *H&H Plus*

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  • Beryl Millam on being groom to the 1981 Grand National winner Aldaniti

    All great horses, like Red Rum or Desert Orchid, know they’re good and play to the crowds. Aldaniti was exceptional – he loved people, loved being made a fuss of. We all loved him, he was very special; he had something.

    When he broke down at Sandown, Bob Champion had been to the Royal Marsden Hospital and been told he had cancer, which had spread. He said, “The horse is finished, I’m finished, that’s it” – and Aldaniti’s owners, the Embiricos, said, “No, we’ll take him straight home and get him right for the National.”

    His leg was a mess, it was like an S-bend. Our vet Mike Ashton said he didn’t think he’d ever be ridden again, let alone raced, but that we had to do what we could. He spent seven months in his stable with his leg in plaster. That’s like being in prison for us and he just accepted it and took everything in his stride. He wanted to get better.

    I usually watched him race on television, as we had a lot of point-to-pointers at the time, too. Ten of us watched the Grand National at home, cheering him on.

    After he retired, he loved going to racecourses. I also took him to shows, an open day at a prison, in a department store lift to the 10th floor, and he opened supermarkets and shopping arcades in the middle of London.

    He always had a crowd and when he thought he’d done enough, he’d stamp his foot. I’d say, “All right, Niti, in a minute.” He’d do it twice the next time, and when he did it three times, I knew I had to take him back and let him have a haynet for an hour and come out later.

    In 1987, we did a sponsored walk from Buckingham Palace to Aintree, for Bob’s cancer research charity, and people could ride a mile each. I never left his side for 250 miles.

    One child was deaf and dumb; the carers said, “He can’t talk, but he can understand, so please talk to him.” By the end of the ride, he was answering me and we were having a conversation. They couldn’t believe it and said he’d never spoken like that. That’s the animal element, it brings out the best in people.

    I remember an old lady asked if she could put some money in our collection box. I was expecting a few coppers and she put in £10. That was a lot of money in those days. She asked if she could stroke him and after she’d patted him, she said, “You know, that was worth every penny to pat such a wonderful horse.”

    One young chap was being treated at the Royal Marsden; his wife had raised several thousand pounds. He knew nothing about horses but his whole family came to do the walk. They said they never thought they’d see the day he came out of hospital and walked again, let alone ride a horse. They were all in tears and we were in tears of joy.

    To have done this job for 23 years made me feel very humble, but also honoured and privileged to have looked after such a wonderful horse.

    Every Grand National, I put flowers on his grave; he is buried in the Embiricos’grounds. I still miss him, I always think of him; we’re always saying, “Niti this and Niti that” – there are pictures of him all round my walls.

    Someone said that the Grand National was a fairy story, but I think it was a miracle – someone up there was looking after Aldaniti and Bob Champion, so much good has come out of this.

    ● As told to Kate Johnson

    This feature is also available to read in this Thursday’s H&H magazine (8 April, 2021)

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