Since its inception in 1839 the Grand National has been a part of Britain’s sporting identity. To this day it attracts a worldwide audience of over 600 million people and is a mammoth fixture for the UK betting industry.
But what makes the Grand National special above all other races in the National Hunt calendar is the incredible stories that it throws up. Whether it be Red Rum’s third triumph in 1977 or AP McCoy finally winning the great race after 15 attempts.
However, there is one story, that still touches the heart 40 years on. In 1981, Jockey Bob Champion and his horse Aldaniti won against all odds. Both of them had made miraculous recoveries in order to win the racing’s greatest prize.
Champion had survived testicular cancer two years prior whilst Aldaniti had recovered from an injury that threatened to end his racing career and life.
Champion’s cancer scare
In 1979, Champion was diagnosed with testicular cancer. Doctors gave Champion a 30% chance of surviving and three to four months to live.
Champion details the treatment he had saying: “The treatment was barbaric those days. They put bleomycin, vinblastine in plating, every day for a week and then a couple of days of APA again. Three days off, hit me again with it, then four days off, hit me for a week again.
“Thankfully it worked, but getting fit was the hard bit, because I’d lost all my muscle. Everything about me, I weighed down to about nine stone.
“I lost about 30% of lung capacity to and, believe it or not, that was the hardest thing coming back. I still think I only came back to about 90 to 95% for lung capacity. So, I had to work really hard to get fit actually.”
Two years after his win in the National, he set up the Bob Champion Cancer Trust. To date the trust has raised over £15 million in helping to fund vital cancer research.
Whilst Champion was battling cancer, Aldaniti was battling a career ending injury which he had suffered at Sandown.
The injury to Aldaniti was so serious that there was talk of putting the horse down and Champion toyed with giving up racing altogether.
“He broke down and had injuries for about four times in his life. He spent more time in his box than he did on the racecourse.
“I actually was so ill, but I went and watched him coming back from my treatment. And I popped in there and saw him break down.
“Absolutely broke my heart, I thought about giving up because I always said he’d win a national one day. And I can remember the vets wanting to put him down because he was so bad.”
Aldaniti miraculously recovered from the injury that could’ve ended his career with trainer Josh Gifford who the 1984 movie Champions referred to as “the governor,” riding him out every day. A dream that lay dormant had been reignited.
The 1981 Grand National
Aldaniti was second favourite for the 1981 National and Champion believed on the morning of the race, his mount had a strong chance of winning.
“I was very confident that day, believe it or not. I thought it was a formality.”
Champion felt that Aldaniti over-jumped the first but described the race as “a dream ride.”
Royal Mail ridden by Phillip Blacker and Spartan Missile ridden by John Thorne were the biggest dangers to Aldaniti as they approached the run in.
“I hit the front three and a half miles too early because he used to pull very hard but he was jumping so he got himself there.
“I jumped the last, I thought well, you know, we’ve got 400 yards to go. I felt this horse coming close to me about three quarters of a lengths. And I thought that must have been Philip on Royal Mail.
“But I kept my head down and you know, the further I went the further I was going to win and it wasn’t till after the race. I knew it was Spartan Missile, because I asked somebody coming in what was second.”
Spartan Missile’s jockey Thorne was tragically killed in a point-to-point accident a few weeks later and Champion paid tribute to him calling him “a true gentlemen.”
Three years after winning in the National, a film was made about Champion’s recovery from cancer. The film starred the late great John Hurt portraying Champion.
The film came about after Champion wrote a book with racing journalist and broadcaster Jonathan Powell.
On the casting of Hurt, Champion said: “What a professional, every film he’d been in. Sadly, he is not with us anymore. But he was a fantastic man.
“John did things in the script. In his own way, you know, and he never copied me or anything, but we are quite alike, I suppose. Because we both from the north. So, you know, we’ve got that same mentality.”
Raising Cancer awareness
Last December, Champion took part in The Full Monty on Ice for ITV. The show aimed to raise cancer awareness during a time when most minds were fixed on the global pandemic.
On cancer awareness, Champion said: “The most important thing is, if you think there’s something wrong, go and see a doctor, and it hasn’t been very good through the pandemic.
“People have been frightened in a way and go and sit in the doctors, and the surgeries weren’t really open. That’s been a shame actually because I feel in the next two years, there’s going to be a lot more people having cancer because they miss the early parts of it.
“But if there’s something wrong first thing you do go and see your doctor that’s the most important thing and hopefully if there’s something wrong, do something early because the earlier you catch cancer, the better chance you’ve got to recover.”
On Saturday afternoon, 40 horses and jockeys face racing’s toughest test when they compete over 30 obstacles on the hallowed turf of Aintree. Whoever wins will have a story to tell of how they reached the pinnacle.
Champion reached that pinnacle 40 years ago with Aldaniti. Against all odds, both of them won when it almost seemed like it was never going to happen. That’s the extrodinary power of the National.