Racing: Hoping, not wishing, on a Christmas Star: Punters fail to find their gift horse in a race of upsets on the last betting day before Christmas

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The Independent Online
JOSH GIFFORD does not wish good luck on Bradbury Star when his horse runs in the King George VI Chase at Kempton on Monday. The trainer knows he has used up his share already.

To participate in the Grand National victory of Aldaniti, the formerly injured chaser who won under a formerly cancer-stricken jockey, Bob Champion, would be enough for one man's pillow thoughts, but Joshua Thomas Gifford sees that episode as a chapter of a graced life.

There have been moments of sadness too. Gifford was in the twilight of his riding career when the vortices began to swirl and Macer, his brother and fellow jockey, was stricken by motor-neurone disease. The illness eventually claimed his life and Gifford suffered further loss when his former boss and mentor, Ryan Price, passed away. The training fraternity of the Sussex Downs was hit again when Tim Dunlop, the son of the Arundel trainer John, was killed in a car accident.

As he looks back on this passage, there is still pain in Gifford's words, as he expresses the feeling that he has benefited from other people's torment. 'It was such a terrible, terrible time,' he said. 'I lost a brother, John Dunlop lost a son and I lost an ex-boss. Losing Macer to that terrible disease started everything falling to my advantage because I got our farm (in Huntingdon) and had the money at the right time.

'John lost interest in the other yard (Price's old stable) after his son died, and then the old man died. I've been very lucky to have got what I have here, but I'd much rather those people were still alive.'

'I gave up riding on 5 April (1970) after the Grand National and took up training the following day,' he said. 'From being a boy in the yard, the stable jockey, I had to start giving the orders, which I'd never done. That was a big swap round and I always thought the worst bit was going to be the lads, from calling me Josh to calling me guv'nor, but that adapted quickly, but it was a strain to start with.'

This burden was never greater than when Gifford persevered with a debilitated Bob Champion, who was convinced Aldaniti could win a Grand National. 'No way would the horse have come back into training if it hadn't have been for Bob saying he would win a National one day,' he said. 'The owner said that at least if the horse didn't actually get there it would give Bob hope but it ended up being a real fairy story. Something that couldn't possibly happen from the word go, but yet it did.'

The media have often portrayed Price, to whom Gifford was stable jockey, as the man who had five journalists for breakfast in the absence of a Shredded Wheat, and Gifford admits the image does have a source. 'We were all terrified of him,' he said. 'But underneath it all he was as soft as any of us. His bark was worse than his bite and if he liked you there was nothing he wouldn't do for you.'

Gifford is not the martinet Price was, but he is no easy touch. A joke-shop canister of bullshit repellant lies on one window sill at Gifford's Downs House and may explain why he is not entirely consumed by the recent plaudits that have been dumped at the feet of Bradbury Star's jockey, Declan Murphy.

'Declan is a very good jockey on a good horse, there is nobody better,' he said. 'He's got nerves of steel and the bigger the day, the bigger the man. But he would perhaps not be as effective on a novice chaser, on getting a horse round.'

As he conveys these thoughts, Gifford looks almost owlish with his brambly eyebrows. His skin is similar to that of so many trainers, a rustic vermillion, principally on his hands and his face, which, it seems, has been buffeted from both sides. 'As long as you've got a bottle of scotch and make ends meet this is a wonderful way of life.'

This message comes as Gifford looks out over the Sussex Downs and the splendour of a sprawling yard. He then delivers a strange assertion, the sort that some people put forward when they patrol a mansion even though they might not have millions in the bank. 'You don't get rich at this game,' he said. 'I wouldn't think any jumps trainers are making any money.' But then he almost rescues himself. 'It's tough all right,' he said. 'But what a wonderful life we have.'

Bradbury Star was not thought to be wonderful when he first arrived at Downs House. Gifford took the gelding only when another trainer, Tom Kemp, had to move on. 'I didn't even want to have him and I thought I was taking on a moderate four-year-old,' he said. 'He was basically running in sellers and amateur riders' races that were even worse than sellers. But he's gone from strength to strength and just kept improving and surprising me all the time.

'Now I think he's an animal who would have been good at anything. If he'd been a human he would have succeeded at any walk of life because he's so willing and all he wants to do is please. And, of course, he's got ability.'

But there are those who think Bradbury Star a dilettante, a horse who parades too much in front of the stands. They do not say this to Gifford, though, without armour cladding. 'In the Mackeson (Gold Cup, at Cheltenham) he wanted to win and wanted to please and put his heart into it and that's typically him,' he said.

'He's got a heart of gold and he'll keep trying. Sure, he looks about when he hits the front and enjoys the applause, but I'm sure they can all hear the crowd screaming.'

That type of throbbing celebration has greeted Gifford only once as a trainer, on that memorable day at Aintree. Aldaniti's Grand National success is the single occasion he has felt himself blessed: 'That was the only time I've ever thought there was anyone up there.'

(Photograph omitted)

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