Nick Gifford was just nine years old when he saw probably the greatest story in the Grand National’s enduring and colourful history unfold.
Jockey Bob Champion and Aldaniti, trained by Gifford’s late father Josh, overcame all the odds when they galloped into the hearts of the nation by fulfilling a remarkable fairytale.
Champion had defeated testicular cancer after undergoing six months of chemotherapy – while Aldaniti had a serious leg injury, with vets recommending he was put down.
The trainer and owner Nick Embiricos ignored that advice and supported Champion through his dark days.
Incredibly, both horse and rider got back to full fitness – and their day of destiny finally arrived on April 4 1981.
Memories of that incredible early spring day remain as fresh as ever. It was the young Gifford’s first visit to Aintree and one that nurtured his love for jump racing’s greatest spectacle.
“I was nine and I remember it because it was the first year my parents actually took me up to Liverpool, so I was there,” he said.
“I have vague memories about the last supper, the night before when we were all sat round the dining room in Southport, and then getting up early in the morning – walking the course with Bob, dad, mum, and the Embiricos family. I remember all that.”
Gifford recalls getting split from his parents for the race itself – but he did not miss out because he was looked after by his godfather, top trainer David ‘The Duke’ Nicholson.
“I actually got separated from my parents and watched he race from the top of the stands with David Nicholson, who was my godfather,” he went on.
“Being the height of his knee, I didn’t see any of the race – and there were no big screens then – so I just got a running commentary from the Duke.
“He picked me up and carried me down the old wooden staircase of the old owners’ and trainers’ stand.
“We got to the winner’s enclosure – he grabbed me and threw me in there. It was a bit surreal, because I didn’t see the race with my mum and dad. They were whisked off to watch it with sponsors.”
What happened afterwards was just as enthralling – with the story being turned into a film, Champions, which was released in 1984.
“It became 10 times more than just a horse race,” said Gifford.
“That was just secondary. It was incredible Bob had survived cancer and was able to ride him.
“It was the awareness that it raised in the aftermath, with Bob having had testicular cancer, and Aldaniti – who the vets recommended should be put down.
“The horse had broken down twice, and the vets at the racecourse suggested he was put to sleep.
“Dad and Nick Embiricos said ‘no, whatever happens you have to keep this horse alive’. It was the only thing Bob had to cling to. They said it might be the only thing that keeps Bob alive – that he might win the National one day.
“That was the whole point of keeping Aldaniti alive. It was something for Bob to aim at. They didn’t think Aldaniti would race again after he broke down the second time. It was a case of you have to give it a go – because that was what Bob was dreaming about.
“You need a goal if you are critically ill. You have to cling to something and have a target.”
Gifford is constantly reminded of that day of a lifetime as photographs of the event adorned the family home in Findon, West Sussex.
“I remember the aftermath. We’ve got pictures of it everywhere in the house,” he said.
“Although I was only nine, the memories of it all are fairly fresh in my mind.
“Most years something comes out of the woodwork and gives us a story behind the race – whether it be jockeys, or trainers, or staff there is always something there.”