The best measure of Josh Gifford is that his death yesterday robbed the jump racing community of so cherished a friend that his status as one of its greatest achievers seemed almost incidental. Though a multiple champion jockey, and trainer of one of the most loved Grand National winners, Gifford will be mourned primarily as one whose relish for life and laughter warranted a far broader indulgence than 70 years.
That is not the way things work, of course, and the septicaemia of his final months had required him to renew the courage and humour that were his trademark as doyen of a generation of riders who housed loyal, warm hearts in apparently unbreakable bodies. Already, in the few years since retirement, Gifford had come to seem a character drawn from bright colours since left to dry on the Turf's palette. As such, perhaps, his memory will be best honoured as some chuckled reproach, whenever the sport is tempted to excessive earnest, or caution.
Certainly, those who knew him best will remember a figure more engaging – above all, as the dangerously munificent host of Findon cricket teas – than might be credibly accommodated in the medium likely to preserve his memory longest. It was as trainer of Aldaniti – who returned from long-term injury to win the 1981 National after his jockey, Bob Champion, had recovered from cancer – that Gifford was depicted by Edward Woodward in the film Champions. In the flesh, however, he was steeped in the sport's richest, most authentic flavours.
He began his apprenticeship on the Flat aged just 11 and weighing 5st, and proved a prodigy in adolescence. Increasing weight required him to switch to jumping, and it is fitting that his life should be celebrated on the eve of a race ultimately surpassed, in his affections, only by the National itself. As stable jockey to Ryan Price, Gifford won four of the first five runnings of the big handicap hurdle then known as the Schweppes – run at Newbury tomorrow, weather permitting, as the Betfair Hurdle – on horses prepared with an artistry not always appreciated by the punters or, in one notorious case, Hill House, even the stewards. It gave Gifford huge satisfaction when Deep Sensation in 1990 made him the first to win the race as both jockey and trainer.
Gifford was champion jockey four times, accumulating 641 winners before retiring after the 1970 National, at just 28. He had failed to complete only four times in over 30 rides over the big fences there. After taking over Price's historic stables, in the lee of the Sussex Downs, one of his few regrets was that he never quite reached the same pinnacle in his second career. In 1987-88, David Elsworth just denied Gifford the trainers' title and so became obliged by the terms of a side bet to forfeit a case of whisky. Elsworth delivered it to Findon in person, with a driver. "We had quite a party," Gifford managed to recall.
Deep Sensation proved among the very best of 1,587 winners, his 1993 Queen Mother Champion Chase redeeming past frustrations at the Cheltenham Festival. (Gifford had waited 17 years for his first winner at the meeting, in 1988.) In 2003, he handed over the stables to his son, Nick; his daughter, Tina Cook, is a leading eventer. In the evening of his career, he found the going uphill. "It's tough, all right," he reflected. "But what a wonderful life we have."
Chris McGrath's Nap
Where's Reiley (2.25 Southwell) Loves it here, five times a C&D winner and excellent effort in better grade at Wolverhampton last time.
Ezra Church (4.40 Southwell) Bolted up in an apprentice race last week – and still off the same mark.
One to watch
Les Verguettes (Chris Wall) was set too much to do off a steady pace at Kempton but closed well to finish on the heels of the principals.
Where the money's going
Quel Esprit is now evens with Coral for the Hennessy Gold Cup at Leopardstown on Sunday following the defection of Synchronised and Quito De La Roque.