The mane attraction: Racing's elite retire to a life of book signings and charity gigs. Julie Aschkenasy hoofs it round the equine celebrity circuit

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If all goes well for The Fellow, one of the favourites in today's Grand National, then one thing is certain - he will not be running in the celebrity stakes. He has tremendous courage and proven ability. The fact that he's not even a thoroughbred could capture the imagination of the public, but he is lacking the vital prerequisite for true equine stardom - he is not British, he's French and in France there are no betting shops for him to open.

Genuine celebrities are few and far between in racing. Horses can win big races in style but only when they receive fan mail can they be said to have made it. An ability to pose for photo opportunities is essential. Good looks and affable nature play a part as do the marketing skills of the people behind the horse. Such stars come from the world of jumps rather than the flat for the simple reason that their careers last longer, giving them more time with which to capture the public imagination.

Red Rum, Desert Orchid and Aldaniti are old men now (Red Rum is 29) and are all working at extra-curricular activities in retirement. At present there is no sign of a young pretender moving in to usurp them.

Career opportunities for ageing National Hunt horses are pretty feeble. They are mostly geldings and as such have no intrinsic value. The only options open are to become trainers' hacks (a position usually reserved for the stable favourites) and, of course, hunting. Many go on to live out an honourable retirement on a loving owner's property. Then there are the sad cases. Some end up being sold over and over again; worse, Roark (no big timer but he had his moments, winning the 1988 Ladbroke Hurdle) was the recent subject of an RSPCA investigation alleging neglect. Only a handful can join the celebrity stakes.

Aldaniti is a big name as a charity worker. He makes between five and twenty appearances every year, raising money for cancer charities. He most famously collected just under pounds 900,000 in 1989 as a result of a month-long walk from Buckingham Palace to Aintree, arriving in time for the Grand National. Lucienne Wilkinson of the Bob Champion Cancer Trust explains how versatile Aldaniti needs to be. 'He is 24 years old now. He gets letters after walks and cards on his birthday. He even made an appearance at Earls Court Arena. He wasn't wildly happy there and we were terrified, following him with a bucket . . . just in case. He's a game horse who will turn his hand to anything.'

Another Aldaniti sponsored walk began yesterday at Aintree and will continue until 7 May, when it finishes at the Royal Marsden Hospital. Anyone can take part (over a minimum of one mile) by foot or on horseback.

In recent years Red Rum has cut his schedule down to two engagements a month. 'He is an old gentleman,' explains trainer Ginger McCain. 'He's done it all . . . switching on the Blackpool illuminations, opening betting shops, appearing on the BBC Sports Personality of the Year programme in 1977, and chief of the Highland Games.' McCain is fiercely protective of Red Rum's celebrity status. 'He originated all this stuff. He was the first to do it. Desert Orchid couldn't walk in his shadow. You can't do the things with Desert Orchid that you can do with Red Rum. There is no way you could have got him into the BBC lift like we had to for the sports personality show. He can go up steps, into shops, whatever.'

For many, it is Dessie, the dashing grey, who tops the celebrity stakes. He doesn't just receive birthday greetings, he gets Valentine cards too. At one point his fan club had 2,500 members. In 1992, the nation held its breath when Dessie fought for his life with a twisted intestine. He'll present a petition to Number 10 against transportation of horses abroad for slaughter, but he wouldn't stoop to opening a supermarket. That's the sign of true stardom.

Bob Champion Cancer Trust (071-924 3553) for details of Bob Champion and Aldaniti sponsored walk

Opportunity to see past Grand National champions at an open day, 16 Apr, at Ian and Emma Baldings' Stables, Park House Stables, Kingsclere, nr Newbury (0635 298210); parade at 10.15am with Maori Venture, Mr Frisk, Party Politics, Little Polvier, Rhyme and Reason and Aldaniti, pounds 2 per person on foot, pounds 5 car (1-2 people), pounds 10 car (3 or more), children under 12 free

(Photograph omitted)

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