The story of Aldaniti and Bob Champion is like no other. The pair had faced many struggles throughout their careers, overcoming adversity to line up in a 39-strong field for the 1981 Aintree Grand National. Starting as 10-1 second favourites for the 135th renewal of the great race, their incredible story had captured the hearts of the public and racing fans alike.
Aldaniti was prone to injury and had sustained a serious tendon injury just over a year before he was due to run in the National. Trainer Josh Gifford and his vet had considered euthanizing the horse because of the severity of the injury, but his owner (Nick Embiricos) was adamant he would recover and return to racing. Aldaniti spent the entirety of 1980 on box rest, recovering at Embiricos’ Barkfold Stables, and had only one preparation run in the Whitbread Trial Handicap Chase in February 1981, which he won.
Champion, too, was in recovery mode. In July 1979, after a fall at Stratford a few weeks prior, Champion was diagnosed with testicular cancer. After two specialists confirmed the news at the Royal Marsden Hospital in Chelsea, he was given only a 40% chance of survival and a maximum of eight months to live. He returned to racing whilst still in treatment, having lost most of his muscle and about 30% of his lung capacity. By August 1980, though, Champion had returned as Gifford’s stable jockey after a gruelling training regime to return to fitness.
After such a series of events, many predicted that the pair would be lucky to even compete in the Grand National, let alone win, but win it they did.
As the tapes went up, Aldaniti raced prominently, over-jumping the first two fences and almost ending his race early, but he soon got into a rhythm and led after the 11th fence. It was here that he would stay, jumping beautifully and galloping his rivals into submission. He beat his closest challenger Spartan Missile by some 4.5 lengths at the line, making history with one of the most memorable moments in racing. Before the race, trainer Josh Gifford said: "There are only three runners: Aldaniti, Spartan Missile and Royal Mail”, correctly predicting the first three home, in order. He and owner Nick Embiricos were perhaps less surprised than others at the result.
Findon village was filled with over 3000 spectators the following day to welcome back their local heroes. Cars were abandoned everywhere, with crowds of well-wishers flocking to the village square, the stables, and even following him up the hill. Aldaniti’s stable had even been decorated with Union Jack bunting in celebration of his win.
In a recent interview, Bob Champion relived his iconic Grand National win, during which he described Aldaniti as “150% genuine”.
He said: “I was always very confident of winning. I’d had 10 rides before and got round five times. Every time I went to the start, I thought I’d win, but never really thought it seriously.”
He went on to say: “Aldaniti over-jumped the first fence and was awful at the second. He stood off too far, but then he realised the fences were bigger and he got his act together. 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 race's history has had, because three fences later at Valentine’s, I jumped to the front. I spent the next three-and-a-half miles thinking of the rollicking I’m getting from the Guv’nor, so I’d better start thinking of excuses!”
“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 him, I’m going to look an idiot, so I better just let him drift into the corner and pop. Thankfully, we got away from the fence pretty sharp and as soon as I hit the running rail, I was going away and won by about three lengths. Another 100 yards I’d have won 10 lengths. I just knew the old horse could keep galloping.”
The thing that makes this even more impressive, though, was that there were no expectations of the horse completing such a feat when he was purchased back in May 1974. Trainer Josh Gifford purchased Aldaniti for just 4,100 guineas (£4305) at the Ascot Bloodstock Sales but was unsure about his investment. The four-time Champion Jockey quit the saddle aged 28 to take up training racehorses at his base in the village of Findon, West Sussex. Despite winning his debut race by some 4 lengths and being purchased by shipbroker and National Hunt enthusiast Nick Embiricos, nobody could’ve envisioned what was to come.
Bob Champion was just a young man at the time who had been appointed as the stable jockey for Gifford after a successful stint in America. He had ridden Aldaniti on all of his starts during his first season, finishing 1st, 2nd, 3rd, and 4th twice. Until Champion’s cancer diagnosis, the pair contested 22 races, winning five and being placed in eight.
Aldaniti’s proneness to injury, however, somewhat halted progress. He was found lame when finishing 7th in a hurdle race at Sandown in 1975, which saw him take a break from the track lasting over a year. He returned for six races as a chaser in the 76-77 season, winning twice at Uttoxeter and Ascot, and finishing 2nd twice.
A win in the Leicestershire Silver Fox Handicap Chase and a respectable 3rd in the Hennessy Cognac Gold Cup saw Aldaniti start the 77-78 season well, but he was again found to be lame after a run at Newbury where it was discovered he had chipped two bones in his leg. Seven months of box rest followed by careful rehabilitation, which saw him take more than a year away from the track for the second time. He returned on Boxing Day 1978, finishing 6th in the King George VI Chase, and ran a further six races that season of which he won two, and finished a respectable 2nd and 3rd in the Scottish Grand National and Cheltenham Gold Cup, respectively.
Despite his obvious ability, he was a horse with problems, spending more time in his box than he did on the track. Following his Grand National triumph, Aldaniti was entered to run in the 1982 running of the race. He again ran in the Whitbread Trial Handicap Chase as preparation but finished a disappointing last. He also lined up in the Greenall Whitley Breweries Handicap Chase at Haydock, finishing 6th. Trainer Josh Gifford believed he was a stronger horse despite these disappointing results and insisted on running him. Unfortunately for Aldaniti, as had happened the year before, his enthusiasm got the better of him. He over jumped the first fence, sending himself and Bob crashing to the floor. Fortunately, they were both okay, but this would prove to be his last race as he was subsequently retired.
Bob Champion continued to race, riding until 1983, by which time he had approximately 500 wins to his name. He then went on to train horses at his base in Newmarket and set up the Bob Champion Cancer Trust.
It wasn't just on the track, though, where the pair gained celebrity status!
In 1981, in collaboration with friend and racing journalist Jonathan Powell, Champion wrote his biography. It was an account of his life which formed the basis of the 1984 film “Champions” starring Aldaniti. Throughout filming, a series of restrictions prevented Aldaniti from undertaking certain tasks, meaning multiple chestnut horses were required to take his place in scenes which involved jumping. Despite some inaccuracies, it tells Bob’s story through all the events in his life, with particular emphasis on the infamous Grand National victory.
Aldaniti also took part in a charity walk for Bob Champion’s Cancer Trust in 1987. A contribution of at least £1000 in sponsorship allowed individuals to ride Aldaniti for one mile of the total 250-mile walk. Notable participants included Jonjo O'Neill, Anne (Princess Royal), and Sarah Ferguson (Duchess of York), with Bob Champion in the saddle for the last mile to Aintree Racecourse, ending the month-long event. The event raised around £800,000.
In 1996, Champion rode Aldaniti, amongst others, in the Ride for Life from Holyrood Palace (Edinburgh) to Buckingham Palace (London). This event raised a further £1 million.
Aldaniti lived out his retirement at Barkfold Manor, regularly appearing at Josh Gifford’s Open Days at Findon. He even had a British Rail Class 86 electric locomotive named after him.
Aldaniti passed away in March 1997, just a week before he was due to take part in the “Parade of Champions”. It was estimated that together Champion and Aldaniti had raised over £6 million for Champion's cancer trust.
After his passing, Champion said: “Aldaniti helped me so much, and even before I was ill he was always a horse I liked riding. When we won the National, it was a lovely sunny day and I'll always remember it. His death is heartbreaking. He was a good old servant, and we went through a lot together. He will be sadly missed.”
Trainer Josh Gifford said: “It's not just the racing he'll be remembered for, but what he has done since as well. He helped raise all that money for charity, and he and Bob gave hope to many people. He always tried his heart out. He certainly gave me the fondest day of my racing career. It's very sad.”
Bob Champion himself retired from training horses in 1999 and was appointed Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) in the 2021 New Year Honours for his services to prostate and testicular cancer research.
Over 40 years on from that day in the sunshine at Aintree, the story of Bob Champion and Aldaniti is still as prominent as ever. Named after breeder Tommy Barron’s four grandchildren - Alistair, David, Nicola and Timothy, he and jockey Bob Champion made history. Against all odds, from the brink of despair, the brilliant Aldaniti and Bob Champion won when it seemed almost impossible. One of the most heart-warming stories in the modern era of racing, and one of the most iconic pairings to grace the track, their legacy will never be forgotten.