Jockey Bob Champion overcame impossible odds to achieve his dreams. His determination and dedication continue to inspire athletes many years after his famous Grand National win.
Champion, born in Yorkshire, England in 1948, was surrounded by riders and hunters from the very beginning. His father was an avid huntsman who took young Bob riding frequently.
These early experiences instilled in him the love of horses and riding that would eventually carry him to a Grand National triumph.
At only 15 years old, Bob Champion won his first horse race. After his initial taste of victory, he continued to race on the National Hunt circuit.
His skill in the saddle won him plenty of races, as well as respect. He also proved skilful with the ladies too. His tempestuous love affairs were well-known and sometimes amusing to those around him.
Champion tried his luck racing in America and enjoyed success. Though his career really took off back to Britain, where he had dreams of winning the Grand National.
He raced over the famous Aintree fences eight times after returning to Britain, always keeping his eyes on the big prize. However, his career and life was about to take a major detour.
In 1979, Bob Champion was diagnosed with testicular cancer. In true Champion fashion, Bob refused to believe that his doctors were correct.
He stubbornly insisted that there was a mistake in the diagnosis. The diagnosis wasn’t wrong. Doctors gave Champion a maximum of eight months to live, with only a 40 percent chance of survival.
In the late 1970s, survival rates in Britain for many forms of cancer were 50% lower than today.
Things looked grim, but he was given a second chance. An extremely aggressive program of chemotherapy, if begun immediately, might just beat the odds. Champion agreed to begin the treatment the very same day.
Most people who have been diagnosed with cancer and told that they will most likely die within months would take some time away from work. Not Bob Champion.
He returned to training and racing while still in treatment and set his sights on winning the 1980 Grand National.
Unfortunately, Champion’s treatment had not been easy on his body. A large-scale infection nearly claimed his life and he was forced to put off his Grand National ambitions temporarily.
The 1981 Grand National
Champion was soon recovering from his various hardships and back in training. In 1981, he rode Aldaniti in the Grand National.
The two were a perfect pair: both hard-working, stubborn and recovering from serious health problems.
Champion’s cancer and Aldaniti’s three leg injuries caused some to speculate that the team would be lucky to get round the course, nevermind win!
However, even before the start of the race the public had taken Champion and Aldaniti to heart and backed the duo into 10/1 second favourites narrowly behind the favourite Spartan Missile who went off at 8/1.
The two survivors melded on the Aintree Racecourse that April day in 1981. Their victory is one of the most memorable and emotional moments ever to be recorded in horse racing.
Coming in four-and-a-half lengths ahead of the competition, Champion and Aldaniti beat the odds and made history.
TV Commentator Peter O’Sullevan described the finish of the race to those watching…
“It’s Aldaniti in the lead but being pressed now by Spartan Missile. It’s Aldaniti from Spartan Missile and here comes John Thorne, 54 year old John Thorne putting in a storming finish.
“It’s Aldaniti from Spartan Missile. Aldaniti is gonna win it, at the line, Aldaniti wins the National!”
You can watch Bob winning the Grand National below…
The Bob Champion Cancer Trust
Bob continued to race and win until 1983. By that time, he had approximately 500 wins to his credit.
After leaving racing, he focused his energy on training horses and running the Bob Champion Cancer Trust.
As always with Bob he didn’t wait around for the money to pour in, instead he got stuck in. Although the initial donations were from well-wishers who knew about Bob’s story.
“We initially had a few thousand pounds sent in from people who won money on the horse. There were a lot of fivers here and there,” said Champion.
“They sent money to me care of the Royal Marsden. My doctor, Professor Sir Michael Peckham, and the horse’s owner Nick Embiricos, thought it would be a good idea to set up a cancer trust.”
The trust became Bob’s passion, and as always he insisted on doing things his way; working hard and then even harder.
He undertook a horse ride from Buckingham Palace to Liverpool, and later in 2010 completing an ambitious fund-raising 17,500 mile walking tour of the country’s 60 racetracks in only 60 days and raising over £100,000 in the process.
Even Bob’s favourite horse Aldaniti raised funds for the cause. Bob, on hearing of the horse’s death from a heart attack in 1997, aged 27, estimated that between them they had raised more than 6 million pounds.
“He helped me so much and even before I was ill he was always a horse I liked riding,” Champion said.
To date more than £15 million pounds has been handed over to the Royal Marsden Hospital in Sutton, Surrey, paying for vital research into the causes and treatments for cancer, particularly in men and more recently into prostate cancer.
Although Aldaniti died in 1997 and Bob Champion retired from training horses in 1999, they are both legends of the horse racing world.
Their legacy is a sense of hope for all those who follow in their paths. They taught us that, even when things look desperate, success is just over the next fence for those who choose to make the jump.
There’s no doubt that the money raised has saved countless lives and in recognition of his fantastic contribution, in 2011, Bob was awarded the Helen Rollason Trophy for outstanding achievement in the face of adversity during the BBC’s Sports Personality of the Year show.
The Helen Rollason award is presented in honour of the former BBC Sport presenter who herself died from cancer in 1999.
Bob and Aldaniti won the BBC’s Team of the Year award in 1981 and as always he accepted the award from fellow jockey A.P. McCoy with typical humility.
Watched by Anne, the Princess Royal, and surrounded by close friends and family, Bob described how his struggle with cancer had been viewed at the time.
“I was written off. Everybody said I was finished. But Josh (Gifford, Aldiniti’s trainer) stood by me, and as you can see we came good on the right day.”
Bob, selfless as usual, summed up by thanking his loyal supporters: “But most of all, people out there, who supported myself and the cancer trust. This award should really be for you. Every little bit of money going to it gives people like me a chance of living.”
If you think Bob is amazing and would like to support his fantastic work fighting Cancer then check out his website – The Bob Champion Cancer Trust.