Racing: Champion still beating the odds

Having beaten cancer and ridden Aldaniti to Grand National fame the jockey turned trainer faces an uncertain future after handing in his licence
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WHEN HE has heard the loudest applause the silence must be strange for Bob Champion. It was a quiet Christmas at the trainer's Newmarket yard because the horses have gone now. Robert Champion MBE, the conqueror of cancer and Aintree, will no longer be a racehorse trainer at the end of the month. After 35 years in the sport he is retiring.

There will be no tears, though, from Bob Champion. He knows there are more important things to save them for. Indeed, at the same time as Champion's trainer's licence lapses he will, once again, point his car south towards the Royal Marsden Hospital in Surrey for an annual check-up.

Doctors will conduct blood tests and take x-rays to determine whether Champion's body continues to be free of the cancer he beat 20 years ago. Each year the prospect terrifies him and, as soon as he turns off the M25 towards Sutton, he feels the smell of chemotherapy come all over him. "I can't sleep for two weeks before I go," he says. "I never take anything for granted. It's still a great worry. It's going to be quite a month for me."

As the season might suggest, a little pantomime is played out each time medical staff emerge to give Champion his results. "I'm sure they come in deliberately looking miserable," he says. "They know how much I worry and they string it out, asking me how my charity is doing, before they eventually put me out of my misery."

The end came for Champion's 16-year training career when he started to do some sums. His best season was the 1984-85 campaign, in which he saddled 11 winners. After that he did not manage double figures again. Eventually, his career was killed by financial strangulation.

"I broke even over the last two or three years purely because I kept the numbers down," he says. "Look how many others have stopped recently, the likes of Lynda Ramsden, Geoff Oldroyd, Charlie Brooks, Julie Cecil and Lord Huntingdon, so it's not just me. It's becoming a trend.

"At the time I decided to retire I did a calculation about Martin Pipe, a great trainer. He had won 61 races by then and was well clear of anyone else with horses which had earned pounds 199,000 win and place. With his percentage that gave him pounds 18,000, which is what I would reckon to be the profit, as the training fee is cancelled out by the costs. So he didn't earn that much and he's meant to be the best. What chance have the rest of us got?"

Bob Champion himself was given little chance when he was first diagnosed with testicular cancer in 1979. There are not many harder men around than National Hunt jockeys but Champion tells you that on this occasion he was frightened by a single word in the dictionary. The jockey endured operations and chemotherapy which became so painful that he began to wish he had been killed on the racecourse.

He was pulled through partly by a dream he had replayed since childhood. As a boy, wee Bob would set his mates sniggering at the picture house as they watched Pathe News' reports of the Grand National. Young Robert told his giggling audience it was a race he too would win.

Well, he did the hard bit by becoming a jockey and then, one day, his orbit collided with that of a tough old chestnut called Aldaniti. He was not the fastest of horses, an animal wracked by tendon problems, but the gelding possessed a fighter's temperament. He would gallop through razor wire if required and Champion always considered him a National horse. It was a belief which sustained him through the darkest moments.

On 4 April, 1981, Aldaniti and Bob Champion went to post with 38 others at Aintree. Several minutes later both their lives had changed irrevocably. In the wake of victory, cheques from all over the world started landing at the Royal Marsden, simply care of Bob Champion, some just to "the jockey". The Bob Champion Cancer Trust was born. From its inception close to pounds 7m has been collected for cancer research and the eponymous fundraiser has become much more than just another retired jockey.

"Some aspects of my life have got a lot harder, but hopefully the Cancer Trust has helped a lot of people," Champion says. "For the little bit of privacy I have lost from my personal life it's not a big price to pay to help these people who are fighting. Every life we can prolong, every life we can save, makes me feel chuffed to bits."

Champion saw the end of Aldaniti almost two years ago when the old horse died aged 26, and in three weeks' time he will witness the termination of his career. He hopes to remain at the Cleveland House yard he purchased over two years ago and rent out the 24 boxes. "It's a bit quieter round here now," he says, "but I still throw my leg over a horse in the mornings."

Bob Champion is 50 now and there are the nicks about his face which remind you of his former career. Champion has been divorced twice by women who claimed that while their former spouse may have been saved by the angels he did not fit readily into their company. The ex-trainer does not know what is coming next, but he has no fear. "I've got a few possibilities but nothing certain at the moment," Champion says. "But I'll cope. I'll survive. I'll bounce back, don't you worry about that. I'm not just going to lie down and die." We know.