Jonathan Powell relives that emotional era in 1981
There is only one guarantee ahead of this year’s Crabbie’s Grand National. Sheer weight of money from the public in support of the record breaking champion jockey AP McCoy on his last ride in the famous old race will ensure that whatever he rides on the day will start favourite.
You sense that if he turned up at Aintree on a donkey on April 11 there would be plenty prepared to follow him blindly with their hard earned cash.How could it be any other way when for two decades McCoy has dominated the sport in a way that has never been seen before?
Fairytale results do happen in racing and in sport.Who will ever forget the uplifting ride to victory by Bob Champion on Aldaniti in 1981 after recovering from testicular cancer that left doctors warning him late in 1979 that he had only eight months to live if he declined to undergo chemotherapy treatment?
By then Bob and I were firm friends to the point that he asked me to write his autobiography when he was approached by publishers nine months before the National.
Visiting Aintree for the first time to cover the race in 1970 for the News of the World exceeded my wildest dreams.The race had consumed me since,as a little boy,I had won a year’s supply of sweets on ESB in 1956.
Already I was bewitched by the possibilities of betting. The next year I tried an absurdly ambitious treble involving Sundew in the Grand National, Cambridge in the Boat Race and my hero Dai Dower against Pascual Perez for the world flyweight title. The first pair won but poor Dai was knocked out in the first round in Buenos Aires.
Fred Winter and Kilmore then brought a painful conclusion to my career as the school bookie by winning the 1962 Grand National at 28-1.It took me months to pay.
Fast forward to the early 1970’s when jockeys and trainers were on much more friendly terms with racing journalists than tends to be the case today with their every move monitored and shared on social media.
Soon I was sharing a room with Bob Champion in Southport for the Grand National meeting.That first year in the hotel at Southport I vividly remember the trainer Frenchie Nicholson,or was it his son David?, nimbly scaling a tall pillar in the lounge on the wrong side of midnight.
Several jockeys riding in the National later that day displayed inordinate upper body
strength by walking the length of the lounge with exaggerated handstands, clutching, would you believe, champagne bottles in both fists.Empty,of course.
Bob Champion’s debut in the National on CountryWedding ended abruptly at the first fence. That night, after dinner and a few drinks, he was assuring everyone who would listen, “I would definitely have won”! And by the end of the evening he began to believe it himself.
Our annual stay at a hotel in Southport that could have been Fawlty Towers and his determined assault on the Grand National developed into a triumph of optimism over experience. True, the facilities at the hotel improved to critical,though each year as we drove south on Saturday night we would say never again.
After another disaster on Country Wedding followed in 1972,but Bob’s appetite for the National was fired by a remarkable ride the following year on the 100-1 shot Hurricane Rock in the race which will forever be remembered for the thunderous late charge that took Red Rum ahead of Crisp in the shadow of the post.
Champion and Hurricane Rock jumped the last fence in third place that day before fading into sixth on the run-in.In the years that followed there were more falls than finishes for Bob Champion.
Then came the dreadful news that he was suffering from testicular cancer which required immediate surgery. Josh Gifford, bless him,assured Bob his job would remain open however long he took to recover.Many compassionate men might have said the same.Few,I suspect,would have fulfilled the promise in similarly testing circumstances.
Those of us who travelled regularly to Bob’s bedside at the Royal Marsden Hospital at Sutton in Surrey did not,in all conscience, believe he would ride again;but even at his lowest ebb Bob clung stubbornly to his conviction that he would return as a jockey.
He had this ridiculous desire, you see, to ride a horse called Aldaniti in the Grand National.We would happily have settled for his recovery, however long it took, even if it cost him his career. His indomitable spirit dictated otherwise.
At times,wracked by pain from the harsh drugs that ultimately saved his life, he looked dreadfully ill. Usually when I drove him from hospital to Wiltshire for a break with his sister he would ask me to stop quickly by the roadside so that he could be sick. During those grim days Bob vomited constantly, suffered horribly from constipation for days on end, lost all his hair and almost three stone in weight. He alone believed he would ride again. He was at times stubborn, certainly, intransigent and downright difficult to the point that he would lose his temper if we even hinted at the possibility of a life outside racing.
Sometimes between treatments he would venture out to a race meeting sporting a fetching wig,looking pale,whippet thin and seriously unwell.Then,as he watched stonily from the stands at Sandown one bleak November afternoon in 1979 Aldaniti pulled up badly lame.The horse’s injured leg was put in plaster and his old jockey left the course numb with despair at this latest hideous misfortune.
Our friend Monty Court, then of the Sunday Mirror, visited Bob almost every day in hospital.After the setback to Aldaniti Bob was even less communicative than usual.
Monty remembers asking quietly if there was anything he could do to help. A long silence ensured before the stricken jockey whispered,“Please go away and leave me alone”.
On January 1, 1980 Bob Champion left hospital for the final time.He had completed his debilitating course of chemotherapy but during that long, cold winter the nightmare continued.Worst of all when he tried to ride his niece Emma’s pony he discovered that he could not hold the reins properly as he had lost most of the feeling in his hands and feet.
At first his recovery was agonizingly slow but at least he began to put back the lost weight. At the end of March he insisted on travelling to Aintree for the 1980 Grand National.We stayed in Southport,where else, and he assured everyone he would return the following year on Aldaniti. Few, if any, believed him.So began the long haul back to fitness,first in America,away from the public gaze.He rode several horses each morning in Camden,South Carolina for a gentle-eyed trainer called Burly Cocks, worked hard on his fitness and began to hope again.
Then, one magical evening late in May, 1980 I received a phone call from Bob Champion that set my pulse racing.
He has never been a man of many words but this time I could tell immediately that he was running on overdrive.
“I can still do it,” he blurted out before going on to explain that he had just ridden a horse called Double Reefed to win a flat race at Fairhill.
He added,“Mind you the trainer Jonathan Sheppard didn’t know I’d never ridden in a flat race before so the night before I was both frightened and excited when I went to bed.
“Flat racing is a bit of a mystery to me but I got a dream run through on the bend and suddenly realised we were going to win. At last I was a jockey again…and a flat jockey at that.”
It was after his triumph in America that publishers began to take an interest in his story.We discussed several options before signing a joint contract withVictor Gollancz. I would deliver the manuscript at the end of March, 1981; the final chapter would be the Grand National. Back then it all seemed wildly optimistic but even at that point Bob never doubted he would fulfil his date with destiny.
When he returned to England in the autumn he won on Physicist for Josh Gifford at Fontwell in a race sponsored by Gollancz.It seemed a good omen though lack of feeling in his hands and feet continued to hamper his effectiveness in the saddle.
With his weight soaring uncontrollably the sauna in Hungerford became his second home.And when Gifford’s horses endured a lean patch some of his owners insisted on employing the promising young rider Richard Rowe.
In early December Gifford came under intense pressure to replace his stable jockey but remained resolutely loyal despite his private misgivings.
What Bob needed badly was plenty of practise and a change of luck.It came at Ascot on December 13 when, within the space of 40 minutes, he was successful on Kybo and Henry Bishop in the day’s two main steeplechases for Gifford.The crisis was over.
At times, wracked by pain from the harsh drugs that ultimately saved his life, he looked dreadfully ill