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Champions Celebrates a Jockey's Long-Shot Double: He Beat Cancer, Then Won the Grand National

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Bob Champion has a way with horses and women, but both have brought him grief. In 1979, while riding a promising gelding named Fury Boy in a steeplechase in England, he was thrown when the horse fell at a fence. Jumping to his feet, Champion went to the aid of the flailing animal. In his struggle Fury Boy lashed out and kicked Champion in the groin. Even so, the jockey remounted and he and Fury Boy finished the race. Later Champion noticed a swelling in his left testicle. He thought nothing of it—racing luck, he said—until a female veterinarian told him to get it looked at. How did she know? Simple. They had gone to bed together.

Champion was in for a shock. The doctor who performed surgery to remove the testicle told the rider that he had a form of cancer called malignant teratoma, which has a 75 percent survival rate. “I wanted to die,” says Champion, 35, who thought his racing career was over. But he recovered after six months of chemotherapy during which his hair fell out and he lost 42 of his 160 pounds. Now, four years later, Champion’s struggle has been immortalized in a movie called, appropriately enough, Champions, which will be released in the U.S. this spring. The movie, which an English reviewer called Stirrups of Fire, stars British actor John (Midnight Express) Hurt as Champion and documents the climax of his long fight to beat cancer: In 1981, after being unable to ride or even exercise strenuously for nearly a year, he won the Grand National at Aintree, England, a steeplechase event roughly equivalent in stature to the Kentucky Derby in this country. And he did it aboard a horse named Aldaniti, who more than three years before had suffered a fracture of his right hind leg so severe that the vets had recommended he be destroyed.

Champion was raised around horses in Yorkshire, where his father organized fox hunts. At 19, Bob turned pro and soon earned a reputation as a tough, reliable jumping rider. In the 1977-78 season he was the third-leading jockey in England with 56 winners.

Champion says two things brought him through his siege with cancer—a promise by trainer and mentor Josh Gifford that he, Champion would be his rider when and if he recovered, and a visit to the children’s ward at the Royal Marsden Hospital in London, where he was being treated. “I don’t know if the thought of cancer is as bad for kids as it is for us,” he says now. “But I knew that I had to have a go at surviving to show them it could be done.”

Barely 15 months after he stopped chemotherapy—he still goes to the hospital for periodic checkups—Champion and Aldaniti won the 4½-mile, 30-jump Grand National at 10 to 1. (In 1982 Champion and the valiant 12-year-old once again teamed up for the Grand National. Lightning did not strike twice: Aldaniti fell at the first fence and never raced again.)

Now retired and training horses in Wiltshire, Champion is grateful to be alive. Ironically, others associated with the man and his movie have been less fortunate. One of his doctors, Alun Thomas, died of cancer in 1981. And just before the filming of Champions, John Hurt’s common-law wife of 14 years, Marie-Lise Volpeliere-Pierrot, an accomplished horsewoman, was thrown and killed in a riding accident. Although shattered, Hurt made the film. “Marie-Lise would have kicked me to kingdom come with her riding boots” if he didn’t do it, says Hurt. The hardnosed, hard-living Champion could only shake his head and say admiringly, “He’s one of Britain’s best actors.”

In 1981 Champion married Jo Bestwick, a former jockey, and against the odds the couple was able to have a baby, Michael, now 5 months old. Jo, 28, feels nothing but gratitude for the vet who recommended Bob go to a doctor. “I hope he thanked her,” she says laughing. Not likely. When it comes to women, Champion’s attitude is uncompromising. He doesn’t think they’re strong enough to ride competitively—which is why Jo’s an ex-jockey—and he doesn’t want a filly of his own. “We wouldn’t mind another child,” he says, “as long as it wasn’t a girl.” “I’d like a girl,” Jo protests. “I wouldn’t sleep at night until she was about 16,” says Champion with finality. Apparently, intimations of mortality have mellowed the old race rider very little, if at all.