Racing: Gifford and the Aldaniti factor

The Grand National: As a nine-year-old he saw his father live out the fairytale - now it's his turn
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The Independent Online

The sun has just risen and conquered the obdurate mists as we tramp across the verdant grassland of Nick Gifford's gallops high in the Sussex Downs. As he surveys his string in the distance preparing to work, including his Grand National hopeful Joly Bey, Gifford enters his mental Tardis and lands at Aintree, 1981, recalling the afternoon when a narrative which would have been ridiculed had it been penned as fiction became reality. It is the story of a jockey, Bob Champion, who had overcome cancer; a racehorse, Aldaniti, who had triumphed over lameness; and the miracle-working of a trainer - Gifford's father, Josh.

The sun has just risen and conquered the obdurate mists as we tramp across the verdant grassland of Nick Gifford's gallops high in the Sussex Downs. As he surveys his string in the distance preparing to work, including his Grand National hopeful Joly Bey, Gifford enters his mental Tardis and lands at Aintree, 1981, recalling the afternoon when a narrative which would have been ridiculed had it been penned as fiction became reality. It is the story of a jockey, Bob Champion, who had overcome cancer; a racehorse, Aldaniti, who had triumphed over lameness; and the miracle-working of a trainer - Gifford's father, Josh.

Aged nine, young Master Gifford was not permitted in the Aintree paddock before the National. "I'd arranged to meet mum and dad, but we got separated," he says. "So I made my way up to the grandstand and ended up watching the race with David Nicholson [the former trainer], who is my godfather, and another family friend. I say 'watch'; in fact, I couldn't see anything. All I could do was listen to the commentary."

He adds: "After Aldaniti had won, they picked me up, carried me downstairs and dumped me in the winners' enclosure... this little four-footer, with straight blond hair, wearing a tweed coat. I can still remember all the tears, those of my parents and [Aldaniti's owner] Nick Embir-icos, all blubbing their eyes out. In all the old videos you can see me looking around, wondering what was going on. I didn't understand exactly what Bob had been through. I knew he'd been sick, but at that age I didn't really appreciate how ill he'd been, nor, for that matter, how ill the horse had been."

Those emotion-besplattered events spawned a movie, Champions, with Edward Woodward playing Josh Gifford. Gifford Jnr, now 33, and 6ft 3in of cigarette-smoking affability who has inherited his father's appreciation of gin and cricket - he plays for the local Findon team - as well as stewardship of the stables following Josh's retirement two years ago, does a splendid impersonation of his old man. "He wasn't totally happy about the way he was portrayed in the film," Nick says with a laugh. "Dad would say [he mimics a roar of disapproval], 'I wouldn't walk into a ruddy hospital with my hat on, or drink champagne in the ward, or swear at owners'. Well, it was spiced up a bit, of course, but I thought it was a fairly good likeness."

The story line featured a horse with legs so fragile that vets advised Josh Gifford to have him put down; a jockey stricken with testicular cancer who had undergone six months of chemotherapy; and an owner, the London-born shipbroker Embiricos, who recognised that Champion's desire to partner Aldaniti in the National had helped propel him through his dark months, and who was therefore determined that the horse should go to Aintree, despite the vets' bleak prognosis.

After Aldaniti's triumph, the fortunes of the yard "took off", according to Nick Gifford. It is a response which could be repeated, you suggest, should the 22-year-old owner-rider David Dunsdon emulate Champion and bring another National victory for the yard on the eight-year-old Joly Bey.

"I don't even want to think about it," says Gifford. "To me, it is the greatest race in the world. To win it would be absolutely fantastic. But you've got to get them there in one piece, the ground's got to be right [Joly Bey would not want it heavy], and have luck in running. My nerves have been fine so far, but probably they will get worse. I remember I was a bit of a mess before the Topham last year."

That Topham Trophy at Aintree turned out to be the one occasion when Joly Bey has fallen under Dunsdon's navigation. Otherwise, the gelding has proved a safe conveyance for the amateur who, having received Joly Bey as a 21st birthday present from his parents, at a cost of 240,000gns at Doncaster Sales, has partnered him to two victories from nine rides.

Dunsdon, Nick Gifford's first cousin on his mother Althea's side, has ridden 25 winners abroad, in locations as diverse as Moscow and Madagascar, but Gifford concedes: "From a fitness perspective, it would help if David rode more frequently, but in fairness he hasn't done an awful lot wrong on the horse. Joly Bey is very genuine, anyway, and wouldn't go any quicker for having six bells knocked out of him by a professional."

The jockey, who is currently studying business management at the University of Surrey, will undoubtedly receive a lecture or two ahead of the Aintree centrepiece from Gifford Snr, a man who was four times the champion jockey, and who boasted 642 winners in the saddle and another 1,587 as a trainer.

"We'll go and walk the course beforehand and try and keep David's nerves in check and get him to relax," says Nick Gifford. "Dad's knowledge is invaluable, and I'm sure his advice will be to hunt round for a circuit, and then start thinking about winning the race."

Gifford, who lives with his partner, Ruth, a product manager for a cosmetics company, insists that the three years he spent training point-to-pointers was a valuable education before becoming master of The Downs stables. However, he appreciates the proximity of his father, who still resides in the same house, adjacent to the stables.

You sense that Gifford & Son is a rather more harmonious association than Steptoe and Son. "We always have breakfast together and dad's out on the gallops in the morning just to overlook things," says Gifford. "If you've got to give advice to a young jockey, it's an awful lot better coming from him than me.

"We do disagree at times, about what trip to run a horse, and what track to send him. I've got new ideas, and obviously, dad's been successful doing things his way, but it's always a healthy debate."

You imagine, though, that being born into such a dynasty could burden the son with a welter of unwanted expectations. Not so, apparently. "To be honest, the last five years of dad's career were a bit of a downward curve," says Gifford Jnr of his father, now aged 63. "He was only training 15 to 20 winners a year. It wasn't as if I was taking over from someone training 50, 60, 70, 80 winners, so I was fortunate in that respect. The pressure on me was less than it could have been."

He adds: "My first ambition is to train a few high-profile winners, the ones that put you on the map, and get the yard back full again. I'm very lucky to have Joly Bey as a flagship for the stable."

Like father, like son, they say. It would be one hell of a story if the old adage was proved correct. But then, as Aldaniti demonstrated at Aintree 24 years ago, truth can be stranger than fiction.

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