In A race that by its very nature creates legends, there have been no more soul-stirring Grand National stories than that of Aldaniti and Bob Champion.
In 1981, the once broken-down horse was ridden by former cancer sufferer Champion to win the world’s most famous race in an emotional victory that became the subject of the award-winning feature film Champions.
Josh Gifford, the man who trained Aldaniti to win that running of the great Aintree race, died yesterday of a heart attack. He had only recently returned home to the family’s Downs Stables at Findon in Sussex, after a bout of septicaemia hospitalised him for several months.
In Champions, Gifford was played by the late Edward Woodward as a man who struggled to restrain his emotions at times, and that was true to life. There were numerous occasions when Gifford did shed tears in public, never more so than on that wonderful afternoon at Aintree.
Gifford and owner Nick Embiricos had both pledged to Champion that if the horse was fit, the rider would have the mount in the National, despite the jockey then being treated with chemotherapy for testicular cancer.
Aldaniti had first shown his liking for long distance steeplechasing several years earlier, and finished second in the Scottish Grand National in 1979, suggesting he would be given a crack at the Aintree national a year later.
But the horse was severely injured and at one time it looked as though he would be put down. Gifford’s reputation with the care of his horses was such that Embiricos allowed him carry on.
In reality, Gifford was confident that he could bring Aldaniti back in time for the 1981 Grand National and after Aldaniti recovered, he prepared the chestnut gelding to a peak of perfection, timing things just right for that memorable day, with Champion completing the fairytale.
It was the finest moment of Gifford’s training career which began after a spectacularly successful spell in the saddle.
The son of a farmer, Thomas H Gifford, he had been apprenticed to Sam Armstrong before a spell at Captain Ryan Price’s stable and his growing weight convinced Gifford, who had won the November Handicap on the Flat, that he should switch to National Hunt.
Price was a hard taskmaster but a super trainer as well as a coach of jockeys, and Gifford was soon among the leading riders. Major successes in the saddle included Forty Secrets in the 1962 Welsh National, Milo in the 1963 Mildmay of Flete Chase and Charlie Worcester in the 1967 Mackeson Gold Cup.
He was four times champion National Hunt jockey of Great Britain under Price’s leadership, riding 641 winners in 14 years.
He retired comparatively early at the age of 28, but that was because Capt Price had decided to switch to training Flat horses, and had persuaded Gifford to become a jumps trainer in his stead at the Downs Stables.
In 1969, Gifford married Althea Roger-Smith, a leading showjumper and a member of the Great Britain team at the Nations Cup. Their children Kristina and Nick would follow in their parents’ footsteps in branches of equine sport.
Winners flowed from the Downs, including seven Cheltenham Festival winners – three of them in one year.
In 1989, he was awarded the MBE for his contribution to racing, and even though he was never champion trainer, his popularity with the public was never in doubt.
Towards the end of his training career, a pernicious virus among his horses ruined Gifford’s final seasons and he decided to retire at the age of 61, just as he had retired early from the saddle.
Gifford’s final runner was Skycab at Sandown in 2003. There were more Gifford tears shed when the horse put in a valiant finish to get up and win.
In retirement, he spent much more time on his hobbies of golf and cricket but was always on hand to assist his son Nick who took over his licence.
The Giffords are a close family and given to some good-natured banter – Nick’s website refers to his father as “the infamous Josh Gifford”. The stables are very much a family concern and Nick’s team of riders and assistants includes his sister Kristina, one of the UK’s finest three-day event riders, the winner of two bronze medals at the 2008 Beijing Olympics and the European Champion of 2009.
The Gifford family also retains its sense of timing as last season Nick famously sent out his steeplechaser Royal Wedding to win at Fontwell Park on the very day that Prince William married Kate Middleton, to the delight of the thousands who backed the horse.
It was further evidence that this famous racing name will live on, even though the dynasty’s founder has passed away.
Josh Gifford is survived by his wife Althea, children Kristina and Nick, and his grandchildren.