True sporting legends are usually made, not born. A few greats have been destined for fame since birth though. Bob Champion is one of these natural-born legends, but his courage and dedication are the qualities for which he is most admired.
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 championship.
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 special way with the horses continued to win him races, as well as respect. He also proved to have a special way with women. His tempestuous love affairs were well-known and sometimes amusing to those around him.
Champion tried his luck racing in America and continued to enjoy success. His career eventually took him back to Britain, where he had dreams of winning the Grand National. He raced in the Grand National eight times after returning to Britain, always keeping his eyes on the big prize. However, his career and life took a major detour on the way to fulfilling his dreams.
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. 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.
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 almost everyone to speculate that the team wouldn’t get near the winner’s circle.
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.
After his Grand National championship, Bob Champion 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. The charity has raised millions of pounds for cancer research and Champion continues to raise funds for it to this day.
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.