Legends of the sport: The remarkable racing comeback of Bob Champion and Aldaniti *H&H Plus*

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  • The story of Bob Champion and Aldaniti’s comeback from serious illness and injury is the stuff of legend – and a popular film. Lucy Higginson finds out how it all started and their continuing legacy

    Few stories in racing have captured public imagination like that of Bob Champion piloting Aldaniti to victory in the 1981 Grand National. The jockey had very nearly lost his life to cancer; the horse had fought back from major leg injuries and a recommendation that he be put down. Their win was the stuff of fairy tales, and indeed inspired a number of books and a hit movie.

    But Bob Champion’s life is much more than that of a cancer survivor who clawed his way back to win the National. A fine horseman who worked hard to become a top jockey with some 500 or so winners to his name globally, his life has been shaped by his love of racing.

    And the affection the horse world has for him has helped him become an unassuming hero of cancer research, helping to raise huge sums for the Trust that bears his name.

    A life with horses was always a possibility for Bob, for he comes from generations of huntsmen. His father, Bob senior, worked for 17 years with the Cleveland, his uncle Jack was huntsman for over 40 years of the Old Surrey and Burstow, and his other uncles Nimrod and Bob have similarly enduring reputations with the Ledbury and West Kent.

    Despite an inauspicious riding debut that ended in a pile of nettles, Bob was soon hunting “most Mondays and Thursdays – I didn’t go very well with school work. We’d have stone walls in Monday country and the vale in Saturday country,” remembers Bob. “I’d jump five-bar gates on my 13.2hh pony – I was too lazy to open them.”

    The Hill family who owned Saltburn Riding School had Bob out competing different ponies every week in hunter trials – “that taught me so much.” And soon people were sending ponies for him to improve out hunting.

    Bob’s aspirations were further coloured by his regular visits to Redcar racecourse with his father.

    “When Lester Piggott came, the crowds would double,” says Bob. He was a Grand National nut from the age of about seven.

    “It wasn’t televised then, but I’d go and watch it about a week later on the Pathé news at the cinema,” he recounts.

    School holidays gave him a taste of life as a jockey, spent at Royal trainer Peter Cazalet’s yard, where his uncle was head lad.

    “It was like a military operation, everything done immaculately, and people like [jockeys] David Mould and Dick Francis there,” remembers Bob. “I was lucky enough to ride some really good horses including The Queen Mother’s. I loved it, and it helped me make up my mind.”

    At 15, Bob left school and went to work with a farming uncle who also kept some pointers. He was soon riding winners, which helped him land a job three years later with trainer Toby Balding – where he broke his ankle on his very first morning.

    “Toby was a bit of a maverick and ran an academy; he was like a big uncle to various kids,” remembers racing journalist Brough Scott. “He gave people chances and they had to find their own way. The culture there was horsemanship.”

    “It was a great grounding at Toby Balding’s,” agrees Bob. “I was fortunate to ride Highland Wedding [who later won the 1969 Grand National] and win the Eider Chase in Newcastle… It was my first big winner and meant an awful lot to me. People think I just rode Aldaniti but I was lucky enough to ride some very nice horses through my career.”

    After losing his claim, Bob “struggled a bit, and then went freelance”, eventually working for Monty Stevens, who mainly trained hurdlers, “a self-made man, a real horseman and farmer, and a brilliant feeder,” according to Bob.

    ‘A superb horseman’

    But it is the late Josh Gifford, for whom Bob became stable jockey in the early 1970s, with whom he is forever associated. Josh had been a jockey himself, and his wife Althea was a showjumper whose exceptional eye for a horse is still much valued by her trainer son Nick and eventing daughter Tina Cook.

    Josh saw that Bob, with his hunting background and slightly longer leathers, was “a superb horseman”, he told Jonathan Powell in Bob’s biography, Champion’s Story. “Jumping is the name of the game. If horses jump, they are going to win races.”

    Josh also liked the fact that Bob rarely used the whip. “Coming from a good hunting family, Bob had a natural seat and horses did jump for him,” agrees Althea. “Josh liked the fact that he could help them and see a good stride.”

    John Francome also highights that “Bob was a very good rider. He was good with anything… you never saw him pull one in the mouth, and was always in a good position landing.”

    Weight, however, turned out to be a constant struggle throughout Bob’s career and he tried out everything from laxatives and pee pills to regular saunas and wasting.

    Although Bob’s early experiences in the National were unremarkable – he fell in his first two – he tasted Aintree magic first hand in 1973, coming sixth on Hurricane Rock, considered a rank outsider.

    “It was the year of Red Rum versus Crisp,” says Bob. “To me that was the bees’ knees, to get round in the greatest National there’s ever been.”

    In January 1975 Bob rode a young Aldaniti in his racing debut at Ascot, in Althea Gifford’s colours. He won easily, and was sold to Nick Embiricos and kept in training with Josh. Bob felt at once that he was a great National prospect, but before long the horse was off for a year off with a tendon injury.

    Enduring misery

    By the end of the 1977/78 season, Bob was third in the jockeys’ championship behind Jonjo O’Neill and John Francome, two men he admires greatly.

    But in July 1979 his life was to be turned on its head, when – aged just 31 – he sought medical advice for a swollen testicle where he’d been kicked by a horse, and was diagnosed with cancer.

    Doctors advised that he may have only around eight months to live if he did not immediately begin a powerful course of treatment. Initially, Bob did not think much of the 30% chance of survival they gave him.

    “I still remember thinking, ‘If I go back to riding, maybe I’ll just get killed on the racecourse instead…’,” he recalls.

    Then a doctor translated his chances into racing odds, and it sounded like a bet that Bob would take.

    The misery he endured through that treatment is evident when Bob speaks about it even now, aged 72, and is described in hideous detail in Champion’s Story: the six rounds of chemotherapy, the vomiting followed by dreadful constipation; the bout of septicaemia which very nearly killed him, the shocking weight loss and more.

    “You felt horrendous; you just felt sick 24 hours a day,” says Bob. “A lot of people having my treatment gave up, and I nearly did one day too.”

    “I remember driving away from the hospital, crying, believing he was going to die,” recalls Brough Scott, as the jockey who’d battled to race at 10-and-a-half stone was reduced to eight stone seven.

    Josh Gifford – “the most loyal trainer there’s ever been,” according to Bob – was unstinting in his support. He assured Bob that his job was waiting for him, and – with his owners – presented him with a cheque one Christmas to help stay afloat financially.

    Having completed and survived the rounds of chemo, Bob visited training friends in the United States, where he felt Florida’s warmer climate would speed his recuperation. He began riding out again, despite numbness in his hands and feet, lung problems and exhaustion.

    To his astonishment, he won his first race, at Fairhill in Maryland. He then returned to Britain, and there was a tremendous reception for him at Fontwell when he scored his first win post treatment in this country, on Physicist – it was also Josh Gifford’s 500th winner as a jump trainer.

    But then he hit the buffers: Josh’s horses hit a poor run of form, and owners began to doubt Bob’s ability. “I was getting no rides whatsoever,” he remembers. “Honestly, I don’t think I was as good as I was before – my lung capacity was damaged and I had to work harder to get fit. But Josh stood by me.”

    “It was agonising the way it was going wrong,” remembers Brough Scott, who counselled his old friend that perhaps it was time to quit. “But thank God he didn’t listen to me. He said, ‘There’s this horse called Aldaniti… he’s going to win the National.’ Stubbornness is a good thing sometimes.”

    Then his luck turned one day at Ascot. “I went to that meeting thinking about retiring… and went and won on both my rides,” Bob says. “I went from close to retiring to being almost golden boy again in an hour and a half. Suddenly everything I sat on seemed to be winning. Things were flying.”

    Disaster struck

    By 1981 Aldaniti had endured a second prolonged period of box rest with another leg injury, and been skilfully prepared for the National by Josh Gifford with minimal runs. But disaster struck when the Embiricos family’s Stone Park was killed in the Topham earlier at the same meeting.

    “Everyone asked, ‘Do you want to pull Niti out of the National?’” remembers Alex Embiricos. “But it was Dad’s dream, and Bob’s dream to win it..”

    If the Embiricoses felt queasy, their jockey, at least, felt bizarrely confident on the day of the race. “I couldn’t see myself getting beaten – what a stupid thing to think!” says Bob. “And I nearly went at the first…”

    Niti was always a strong horse, but Bob had found ways to get round that: “I’d stick him up the backside of a horse and not touch his mouth. He’d relax then if he wasn’t seeing any daylight. But this time Niti took control of the race far sooner than Bob intended:

    “I must have had the best run round the Canal Turn anyone’s ever had,” he remembers. “I hit the front three-and-a-half miles from home, and all I could think about was Josh in the stands and what he’d be calling me! But he’d been a jockey… the old horse had got himself there. He was still taking a fair old tug, but I was controlling the race then, going at my speed. All the way round he took me to a fence, enjoying it so much.”

    It’s time well spent to look up the 1981 National on YouTube; it’s a wonderful piece of riding, Niti’s bright blaze and low head carriage making him easy to pick out.

    “I love horses that go like that,” says Bob. “They’re all very well balanced and good jumpers.”

    Their victory became a defining moment in sporting history, and made household names of those involved, with Bob and Aldaniti even becoming BBC sport’s “Team of the Year”. It was to be the sole win in the race for the horse, trainer, jockey and owner – but once is enough, when it’s that good.

    Amid the euphoria, Bob briefly thought of retiring then and there – “What a way to end your career, winning the National” – but in the end did it a couple of years later, after another win in his home county of Yorkshire.

    Many wonderful racing fans who had backed the pair for the National sent their winnings to the Royal Marsden Hospital, where Bob had been treated.

    This led to the birth of the Bob Champion Cancer Trust, which focuses on male cancers such as prostate cancer, since testicular cancer now – happily – has an excellent recovery rate. In less than 40 years it has raised some £15m, not least for a research and education building at the University of East Anglia, and a research laboratory for Cancer Research.

    Since retiring from racing, Bob’s career has encompassed everything from training – “I had a winner over the National fences which meant an awful lot to me” – to being a roving ambassador for the British Racing School, and various TV show appearances. But barely a month goes by when he isn’t out supporting the Trust.

    “Bob plays a huge part in the fundraising calendar and helps with supporting patients and their families,” says its chief executive Lucy Wilkinson. “The Trust would not have survived without Bob and of course Nick Embiricos, the Trust’s chairman for many years.”

    Like nearly every other top rider I’ve interviewed, Bob would give his back teeth to go back and do it all again – “It was the best thing I ever did, doing a job you love and making great friends” – and every April you’ll find him back at Aintree, his addiction to the race as strong as ever.

    “Bob is quiet and undemonstrative and – I say this as a compliment – is happy just to be himself,” says Brough. “Trying to be more tutored wouldn’t work. He is what he is, and he’s entitled to be proud of it.”

    Bob on…

    • His own heroes: “The best I ever rode with, and the best I’ve ever seen is John Francome. He’s absolute class. He was always on the right stride to a fence because he’d organised things so far out. I’ll never forget his Champion Hurdle ride on Sea Pigeon.”
    • Injuries, of which he’s had plenty: “If you’re going to be a jump jockey, you can’t think you’re not going to get hurt. I broke a lot of bones but I got out in one piece which means a lot to me. I’ve seen quite a lot of people in wheelchairs, sadly.”

    What they say about Bob…

    • Brough Scott: “Bob was extremely irritating to other jockeys because he was such a success with the ladies, without making any real effort. It was just a well-known phenomenon. “But he was a horseman jockey, he could handle a big burly gelding rolling round in soft ground. He rode quite long to get his legs round a horse and trainers liked that – [they] knew their horses would be balanced.”
    • Althea Gifford: “Bob is quite shy, somebody who keeps his thoughts to himself a bit, but he always looked you in the eye and was absolutely straight. I give him great credit for all he did afterwards [for his Trust]… it is amazing.”
    • John Francome: “Bob could walk into the weighing room, have a cup of tea and a sandwich and then he’d assure you he hadn’t eaten for two days. He loved his food and genuinely would think that he hadn’t eaten. But he’s just the nicest person.”

    10 facts about Aldaniti

    • Aldaniti (by Derek H) could pull like a tank and yet was gentle enough to let 11-year-old Alex Embiricos groom him when on box rest.
    • He was bred by Tommy Barron in Yorkshire and named after his four grandchildren – Alastair, David, Nicola and Timothy.
    • “Niti” raced 28 times in total with eight wins and 10 places, including third in the Cheltenham Gold Cup and second in the Scottish National.
    • He was bought as a youngster by Josh Gifford and sold on to Nick and Valda Embiricos in 1975, who had always dreamt of winning the National.
    • “He took to jumping straight away,” says Althea Gifford. “He was just a natural jumper, very flamboyant. He could just stand off and always get there. Your heart was never in your mouth with him.”
    • Because of his history of leg injuries, Josh gave him minimal preparatory runs. He had had only one run in 17 months before his National win.
    • Niti played himself in some of the shots in Champions, the film about his and Bob’s story, although he didn’t jump for the film. Six equine doubles were also used, all made up to look like him.
    • Nick Embiricos had the idea of Aldaniti doing a sponsored ride over 250 miles from Buckingham Palace to Aintree. Different people raised £1,000 or more to ride him for a mile, and he carried The Princess Royal and the Duchess of York, among others. He eventually did two rides, raising over £800,000 for cancer research.
    • Niti was very laid-back when he wasn’t racing. “We all loved the horse,” says Alex Embiricos. “He was so kind and gentle, and so empathetic. On the sponsored rides, if he got someone who had a disability on him, he was a saint. He tried his hardest in everything he did.”
    • Niti returned to the Embiricos farm (in the care of Beryl and Wilf Millam) to recuperate from injuries, and later to retire. He died there aged 27, and is buried there.

    Ref Horse & Hound; 6 August 2020