For the Scudamore family the Grand National has been life-defining; for Bob Champion it has been life-saving and not for himself alone. When Tom Scudamore rides the favourite, Cloth Cap, on Saturday on the 40th anniversary of Champion’s famous win on Aldaniti, the fates will bring all the memories together.
“It’s still a magic place and brings so much history with it,” Scudamore said on the four-hour homeward drive from riding a winner at Wetherby on Thursday. “Winning the National, just having a ride in it, is still the goal at the start of the season, just as it was in Dad and Grandad’s day.”
It is 20 years since Scudamore rode the outsider Northern Starlight in the notorious, four-finisher, 2001 Red Marauder Grand National and duly got dumped out at Becher’s Brook. In 17 further attempts, the nearest he has come to emulating his grandfather Michael Scudamore’s 1959 victory on Oxo is sixth, on Vieux Lion Rouge in 2017, when One For Arthur was victorious. That winner was part-trained by his father, Peter, who himself had 13 unsuccessful shots at Grand National glory, starting with a 12th-placed finish, behind Champion-ridden Aldaniti.
So much has happened for Champion, 72, since that epic Aintree day that it was both an inspiration and a wonder to find him fit, fresh-shirted and smart-tied in his immaculate new house in Newmarket on Tuesday. The enormous improbability of his recovery from cancer, and Aldaniti’s from the cripples’ stall, should not lessen with its familiarity.
When diagnosed in July 1979, Champion was given a 30 per cent chance of survival. Chemotherapy was new and brutal back then. Driving home from one hospital visit, I remember crying at the hopelessness of it all. Between treatments he watched Aldaniti break down, seemingly irreparably, at Sandown. On Grand National day in 1980 the horse was out in the field and Champion was still bald, with little feeling in his feet. The tears after the following year’s race were those of purest joy.
He tells the story for our ITV cameras with practised fluency but unfeigned passion. “The Grand National saved me, pure and simple,” he says. “When I was a kid, [his father was a huntsman in North Yorkshire] we used to watch it in the cinema on the newsreel. When I was a jockey [his first winner was as a 19-year-old in January 1968] the Grand National was the one race I always wanted to win. When I was ill, the thought of Aldaniti kept me going. When we actually got to the start, I truly believed we would win.”
Not everything has been easy. There has been some family unhappiness, a failed training venture and two heart attacks along the way. But the memory of what he went through, what the Grand National did for him and what his winning meant for others is the driving force behind his present fitness and the achievements of the Bob Champion Trust that led to last year’s CBE.
On the day after this year’s race, Champion will start a 40-stop, 191-mile walk to mark the number of Grand National fences and the original 191 agonising days from diagnosis to the all-clear. It follows all sorts of other events and other walks, most notably 1987’s Buckingham Palace to Aintree trek on Aldaniti, which have helped to fund a series of projects, most recently the £19 million Bob Champion Research and Education Building at the University of East Anglia.
“I am proud that my winning National [ride] has been an inspiration for people,” he says. “I remember watching Peter’s father [Michael, Tom’s grandfather] win on the newsreel, Peter starting out on Cheers, that’s why I would love Tom to win it.”
On Thursday Tom, now 38 and in his 23rd season, rang his father on the drive home. “He told me he was enjoying it more than ever and I can understand that,” Peter said.
“Chasing the title is an obsession but you don’t enjoy it. He doesn’t have that and I think he actually rides better than I did.”
The boy who asked, “Daddy, why didn’t you hold on to the mane?” when Strands Of Gold somersaulted in 1988, is now wise but undaunted by the expectations of riding the National favourite. “No I don’t feel daunted,” he says. “I feel excited. It’s a thrill and a privilege to be riding a horse like this. He jumps, he stays, he’s intelligent, he’s brave.
“But all sorts of things can happen. It’s a different test now but without the drops and the solid stakes within the fences, it’s a fairer one. It’s great just to be part of all this, part of this piece of British history.”