Champion thought Aldaniti ‘was a formality’

Last Updated 16 Jun 2021 | By Enda McElhinney | Commercial content | 18+ | Play Responsibly | T&C Apply | Wagering

Bob Champion was ever-so confident that Aldaniti would provide one of Aintree’s most emotional Grand National tales ahead of the 1981 race.

Both horse and rider had overcome trials in their lives before conquering the world’s greatest steeplechase and Champion has been recalling the famous win 40 years on.

Battles off the racecourse

To mark the 40th anniversary of his momentous Aintree victory, Champion recently completed a 191-mile charity walk, raising thousands of pounds for his charity The Bob Champion Cancer Trust.

Champion was already a cancer survivor when he won the 1981 Grand National on Aldaniti. The Josh Gifford-trained runner was by then heading towards the veteran stage at 11 years old and he, too, had overcome serious injury en route to that Merseyside date.

Their victory won them the BBC Sports Personality of the Year team award in 1981 and it was chosen by Channel 4 viewers as one of the 100 Greatest Sporting moments, having been made into a film called Champions, which was released in 1984.

Aldaniti had some four lengths to spare on runner-up Spartan Missile – ridden by John Thorne – in that Aintree renewal, though Champion concedes it wasn’t exactly a well-executed plan on the day.

Feeling confident pre-race

With plenty of Grand National experience under his belt, Champion knew the task at hand and he says he had never felt more assured at the start of the great race.

“I’d had 10 rides before and got round five times and every time I went down to the start I thought I’d win, but never really thought it seriously. But that year I really did – I thought it was a formality,” he recently recalled.

The plan was to hold up Aldaniti but it soon went up in smoke once the race was underway – leaving the rider to start thinking of how he was going to explain himself!

“The Guv’nor [trainer Josh Gifford] said to me: ‘Hold Aldaniti up until the last fence’ – the way we always used to ride him. So we jumped off [at the start] and Aldaniti over-jumped the first fence, he was awful at the second and stood off too far – but then he realised the fences were a bit bigger and he really got his act together,” Champion told the Horse & Hound podcast.

“I can remember I jumped Becher’s in about 29th position, where I should have been, but we must have had the best run round the Canal Turn that any jockey in the history of the race has had, because three fences later at Valentine’s – which is three-and-a-half miles from home – I jumped to the front.

“So I spent the next three-and-a-half miles thinking of the rollicking I’m getting in the stands from the Guv’nor so I’d better start thinking of excuses!”

Strong at the end

Aldaniti appeared to be tiring coming to the final fence but horse and rider negotiated it well and, once they got to the elbow in front, there was only one outcome.

“Coming to the last fence, it was the only fence I couldn’t see a stride – he was getting a bit tired – and I’m thinking if I stand him off and deck [fall] him I’m going to look an idiot, so I better just let him drift into the corner and pop.

“Thankfully I chose that method and got away from the fence pretty sharp. John Thorne [riding Spartan Missile] came to me at the Elbow but as soon as I hit the running rail I was going away and won about three lengths. Another 100 yards I’d have won 10 lengths – I just knew the old horse could keep galloping.”

Few National winners in the four decades since have provided more emotional back-stories than Aldaniti and Champion.

Enda McElhinney

Enda McElhinney is a racing writer with a growing portfolio of work on both British and Irish racing, with a particular fondness for National Hunt racing. While he acknowledges there have been many great runners; there has only ever been one Denman.

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