Jonathan Pow­ell re­lives that emo­tional era in 1981

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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

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