That's Champion


Bob Champion's incredible story of courage and endurance has been an inspiration to many. Pam Fisher met him at his home in Newmarket and talks about the revolutionary cancer treatments now available to men and, of course, his love of racing

"I've never found anything in life to rival the feeling of racing at speed over fences," said the man I went to meet one July morning at his home in Newmarket. If I tell you his surname suits him to a tee and that he was introduced on a Radio 5 Live debate on hunting the night before as 'One of the World's Greatest Jockeys', you may not need any more clues. If you remember, like me, being reduced to tears as this man (who 18 months earlier had been given just eight months to live) urged the magnificent Aldaniti around the grueling Aintree course to win the 1981 Grand National, you'll know who I'm talking about.

As a small boy, Bob Champion, MBE, wasn't keen on horses at all, preferring to drive the farm tractors instead. His passion for four-legged transport began after an introduction to hunting by his young sister, Mary. It was a passion that saw him win his first race at a Point-to-Point on Holmcourt at the age of 15. Now he, "knew what he was going to do with his life," he wrote in Champion's Story; his autobiography co-written with Jonathan Powell way back in 1981 and made into a major film starring John Hurt.

Injuries are an occupational hazard to jockeys, especially those who jump fences that look like mountains to the likes of you and me. Broken ankles, concussion, dislocated thumbs and worse are all part and parcel of a day's work. Hours spent in saunas and food deprivation, to lose those vital pounds, all part of the job. Are they all completely bonkers? I asked Bob, who's relief at no longer having to battle with his size is evident. "I wouldn't say bonkers - you are doing something you enjoy but it is a dangerous sport. You get hurt and unfortunately people get killed occasionally. We used to say a professional jockey would have a fall roughly one in ten rides." That's a lot of times to hit the ground!

It seemed nothing frightened Bob Champion - until he was diagnosed with testicular cancer at the age of 31 and given eight months to live unless he underwent revolutionary new chemotherapy treatment under the supervision of Dr Jane Merrow at the Royal Marsden Hospital, Sutton, Surrey. By this time he had won upwards of 350 races since the age of 19 and had never felt fitter, making the diagnosis even harder to accept. Reluctantly he underwent surgery to remove one of his testicles as well as part of a rib to allow access to the centre of his chest where the cancer had spread to his lymph nodes.

But even after feeling suicidal prior to his initial surgery, walking the London streets in his pyjamas the day following his second operation, and developing life-threatening septicaemia a few months later, he clung on to his dream of one day winning the Grand National on his favourite horse, Aldaniti. On hearing that his old friend had broken down for the third time, Bob's immediate response to the horse's owners was: "Never mind, we'll just have to come back together." And come back they did.

After his triumphant ride, watched by an estimated 750 million people worldwide, Bob issued this statement: "I rode this race for all the patients in the hospital. And for all the people who look after them. My only wish is that my winning shows them that there is always hope and that all battles can be won. I just hope it will encourage others to face their illness with fresh spirit." In typical modest fashion he failed to tell me of the thousands of letters he received from cancer sufferers and their families inspired by his incredible story of courage and endurance - but it could all have had a very different ending.

Just 18 months before Bob's diagnosis there was no cure for testicular cancer - none at all. When he started his chemotherapy the survival rate had risen to 50 per cent. It's now an encouraging 90 per cent.

This is in no small part due to the work of The Bob Champion Cancer Trust that supports the work of the Professorial Unit of the Department of Radiotherapy and Oncology at the Royal Marsden NHS Trust Hospital in Surrey. Formed in 1983 it has raised a staggering 6 million since its conception; their President covering thousands of miles on his fundraising missions including dinners, balls, speeches and sponsored walks. "You name it, we've done it," Bob laughed. But it hasn't always been easy. "Cancer's a dirty word: it's always been hushed up," he said, highlighting what we all know to be true even with the huge increase in information on the disease and encouragement to be bodily aware. Bob himself was reluctant to seek medical advice when he suspected something might not be quite right. "Men don't fancy someone getting hold of them around there," he said in that straightforward way of his! It's an obstacle that still faces today's medical profession.

In 1986 The Bob Champion Cancer Research Unit opened within the Royal Marsden Hospital. And this year has seen the opening of a new and highly specialised laboratory that looks into the causes and treatment of testicular, bladder and prostate cancer. "I think it's about the only unit in Europe," Bob told me. Prostate cancer kills over 11,000 men per year in the UK and is one of the hardest to detect. It is predicted to overtake lung and breast cancer as the most commonly diagnosed cancer by the year 2018. "One in four men will be diagnosed with prostate cancer by the year 2010," continued Bob. "There was hardly any money spent on it last year: 85,000 or something ridiculous," he said. It's a figure he finds enraging and nonsensical.

Testicular cancer occurs mainly between the ages of 15 and 35 years and cases have doubled over the last 20 years for reasons that are as yet unknown. "It is getting very curable but the treatment isn't very pleasant even though it's better and less toxic," says a man whose own treatment left him utterly exhausted and feeling so ill that he says he couldn't have ridden a bicycle, let alone a horse.

Now retired from racing, it was whilst presenting the sports prizes at the City School in Sheffield early this year that Bob met Jim Gale, Director of the Northern Racing College in Doncaster and Chief Executive of the South Yorkshire Training Trust. He was astounded at how well Bob was received. "The fact is that people do recognise him and he's one of the few people from within racing who is known outside the sport."

Bob became involved with the Racing College in Doncaster because he wanted to put something back into racing. Encouraging the young today to get involved with racing, a "job in the fresh air" can only benefit the British racing industry

Expressing an interest in wanting to put something back into racing, Bob became directly involved with the Racing College in March 2000. "I'm taking Careers Officers racing; teaching them a little bit about it," he explained. "Then hopefully through them we can

get school leavers into racing because there's an awful shortage of stable staff throughout the country. Nobody is going into it: they seem to want to go into different types of work. They don't want to get their hands dirty and get up in the morning." But isn't it hard physical work? "I suppose so but it's nothing like working on a building site. The lads, and girls, are doing a job in the fresh air; on the whole riding out in lovely countryside such as Newmarket Heath or the Epsom and Lambourn Downs. I promise you: I'd rather be doing that than working in a factory. I think people used to think it was a dead end job with no proper pay structure but now it's got everything. I was in Chorley (Lancs) the other day and nine kids wanted to go and see the Racing School. If nine from every school show interest and you get one or two out of that we are winning," he said with obvious enthusiasm. "We have got the best racing in the world. There's no doubt about that," said Bob. "Why does everybody want to have their horses in England? Because we're the best!"

The only other Racing School in the country is in Newmarket and Bob recognises that his work in Doncaster will have a positive knock-on effect there too. Three hundred youngsters are recruited to the Northern School each year (60 per cent of them girls), with 100 of those expected to complete the front-end course. "The vast majority of leavers go into a job as a stable lad or girl with a Level I NVQ in Horse Care," said Jim Gale. Career prospects are good with many completing the Modem Apprentice Award (Level III Racehorse Care and Management) whilst employed in a racing yard. From there on the sky's the limit with some going all the way and becoming professional jockeys.

This jockey retired from racing long ago and although there are still horses heads popping over the stable doors at his modern yard close to the famous Newmarket course, it's now leased to trainer Barney Curley. My suggestion that perhaps reaching 50 had calmed him down was met with a smile, and a slightly wistful look when I asked if he'd thought of taking up downhill skiing or paragliding to try and match the thrills of racing. "I'd probably crash a paraglider trying to do something I shouldn't do," he laughed giving me a glimpse of the man whose only moments of fear these days are when he goes for his yearly hospital check-ups. "I do get worked up a bit - quite a bit," he said.

As I prepared to leave, Bob told me he was thinking of updating his autobiography but said he didn't know if people would be interested. I told him to get on with it! After all when you've been told you've just eight months left to live and are still here almost 20 years later there must be lots to talk about! And 'Champions' are few and far between these days.

If you would like more information on The Bob Champion Cancer Trust

please telephone 0207 924 3553. Information on the Northern Racing College can be found on 01302 861000.