Few, if any, Grand National stories can rival that of the 1981 winner Aldaniti and his jockey Bob Champion. Indeed, the heart-warming tale was described by the late Josh Gifford, who trained Aldaniti, as ‘the stuff of dreams’ and immortalised in the 1984 film ‘Champions’.
Aldaniti was a talented, if fragile, steeplechaser with a history of leg trouble. In 1979, he had finished third, albeit well beaten, in the Cheltenham Gold Cup and second in the Scottish National at Ayr, where he led over the final fence. However, the following November, at Sandown, he broke down badly and was confined to his box, in plaster, for six months. In fact, he would have been humanely euthanised if the veterinary surgeons had had their way.
Meanwhile, Champion, 31, had been diagnosed with testicular cancer and was faced within the unenviable choice of a maximum eight months to live or a maximum 40% chance of survival if he embarked, immediately, on a ‘barbaric’ course of chemotherapy. Unsurprisingly, he chose the latter and was promised by Gifford that his job as stable jockey would be waiting for him upon his return.
Return he did, albeit after seven months in and out of hospital, as did Aldaniti. They were reunited in the Whitbread Trial Chase at Ascot in February, 1981, winning easily, and Aldaniti suddenly became a leading fancy for the Grand National. At Aintree, Aldaniti was sent off 10/1 second favourite and, despite overjumping the first fence, took the lead early on the second circuit and was never headed thereafter. On the run-in, favourite Spartan Missile briefly looked dangerous, but Aldaniti stayed on well in the closing stages to win by 4 lengths.
The late Tim Forster OBE – almost invariably known as “Captain Tim Forster” in racing circles – was a renowned pessimist. When asked for advice on how to ride Ben Nevis in the 1980 Grand National, he famously told American amateur rider Charlie Fenwick Jnr. “Keep remounting”. Despite his misgivings, Ben Nevis was left clear by the fall of Delmoss at Becher’s Brook on the second circuit and made the best of his way home to win by 20 lengths at odds of 40/1.
Forster had already trained one National winner, Well To Do in 1972, and in so doing become the first owner-trainer to win the iconic steeplechase since World War II. His third, and final, win in the National came courtesy of 50/1 outsider Last Suspect, owned by Anne, Duchess of Westminster and ridden by Hywel Davies, who put up 3lb overweight. Hardly the most resolute steeplechaser in training, Last Suspect only lined up at all because of the persistence of his jockey but, despite fiercely swishing his tail – a tell-tale sign of irritation – came with a withering run to overhaul the leader, Mr. Snugfit, in the shadow of the post and win by 1½ lengths.
Thus, Tim Forster became one of a select band of seven trainers to have won the Grand National three times. Honoured as the “last of the old-school trainers”, Forster died in 1999, at the age of 65, from cancer of the bone marrow, but was nominated for the Grand National Hall of Fame at Aintree Racecourse in 2013.