40 years on: The Aldaniti Grand National story

Features | 1st April 2021

This year’s Grand National marks the 40th anniversary of one of the greatest sporting stories, Aldaniti and Bob Champion winning the famous race.

When they lined up at Aintree in 1981 for the world‐famous race, Aldaniti and his jockey Bob Champion had overcome incredible odds just to be there.

Bob had beaten cancer and his big‐race mount had recovered from a leg injury so severe the vets thought his racing days were finished. 

Together they conquered the fearsome fences for the most emotional victory any racecourse is ever likely to see. It was so remarkable a film was made of their triumph over adversity.

When Bob was diagnosed with cancer, the one thing that got him through the debilitating treatment was the thought of riding Aldaniti in the Grand National.

The pair had finished third in the 1979 Cheltenham Gold Cup and trainer Josh Gifford had assured Bob the ride on Aldaniti, as well as the job as stable jockey, remained his.

Trainer Josh Gifford (left), Aldaniti and Bob Champion
Trainer Josh Gifford (left), Aldaniti and Bob Champion

Those Grand National dreams looked to have been dashed when Aldiniti sustained an injury that could have ended the horse’s career.

His leg was put in plaster and he was confined to his box for six months. Not many horses would have tolerated such confinement but Aldaniti, named using the first two letters of his breeder’s four grandchildren, was the perfect patient.

With both horse and jockey recovered, the pair headed for Aintree as 10‐1 second favourites for the Grand National. On a sunny spring day, which helped Bob’s chemo‐hit lungs, Aldaniti set out on two circuits of the ultra‐tough four‐and‐a‐half mile course.

Aldaniti and Bob Champion on their way to winning the 1981 Grand National
Credit: BBC Sport

Their race was nearly over before it had barely begun. Aldaniti’s enthusiasm almost got the better of him at the very first fence. He stood off too far, came down steeply and scraped his nose along the turf but he managed to stay on his feet.

The plan had been to settle in midfield on the outside to allow for an easier round of jumping. Everything was going to plan taking The Canal Turn for the first time.

Three fences later Aldaniti had jumped his way to the front with still well over a circuit to run. They were never headed again as Aldaniti and Bob galloped in to the hearts of the nation. They came home four lengths clear of favourite Spartan Missile, ridden by 54‐year‐old jockey John Thorne, for the most emotional of triumphs.

It wasn’t the last victory for Bob and Aldaniti that year. They scooped the team award at the BBC Sports Personality of the Year ceremony and plans were soon made for a film starring Aldaniti as himself and the late Sir John Hurt as Bob. The film, Champions, was released in 1984 to much acclaim.

champions film 1984 - aldaniti and bob champion grand national

Following their National victory, hundreds of punters who had backed Aldaniti donated their winnings to the Royal Marsden Hospital where Bob was treated.

It sparked an idea and the Bob Champion Cancer Trust was born. Aldaniti, who was retired following a first‐fence fall in the 1982 National, played his part by walking 250 miles from Buckingham Palace to Aintree in 1987, arriving on Grand National day. The trek, when he was ridden by dozens of famous people including the Princess Royal, raised £820,000.

Aldaniti’s owner Nick Embiricos, alongside Bob, was the driving force behind the Trust. More than £15million has been raised since it was launched with the money going to fund the Bob Champion Cancer Research Laboratory in Sutton, part of the largest male dedicated cancer research facility in Europe.

The team at the Bob Champion Research and Education Building in Norwich. Bob’s charity fundraising continues. This year he will embark on a near 200‐mile walk to mark the 40th anniversary of his National win.

You can support the Bob Champion Cancer Trust by donating here or buying a nice looking face mask.

Bob Champion Cancer Trust Face Masks

For his tireless work Bob was awarded the CBE in January for his services to prostate and testicular cancer research. A Champion by name and, undoubtedly, a champion by nature.