Famous jockey and film star set for Norfolk reunion

Chris Hill It was an epic tale of sporting courage and victory against all the odds - brought to life by an enduring British icon of the big screen.

Chris Hill

It was an epic tale of sporting courage and victory against all the odds - brought to life by an enduring British icon of the big screen.

And 26 years later the scene is set for a Norfolk reunion between a legendary jockey and the veteran actor who portrayed him.

Bob Champion, who overcame cancer to triumph at the 1981 Aintree Grand National, is soon to embark on a fundraising journey to visit all 60 of Britain's racecourses in 60 days.

And when he arrives at Fakenham Racecourse on May 23, the familiar face of John Hurt, who played the title role in the 1984 movie Champions, could be there to welcome him into the paddock.

The 70-year-old actor has a home in Norfolk with his fourth wife Anwen and said, if his current filming schedule permitted, he hoped to support the charity effort at his “local racecourse”.

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Fakenham's course director said Champion was a regular raceday visitor and it would be “fantastic” if Hurt turned up in support of his latest venture.

Champion, 61, said his first idea was to make the journey on horseback, but he was persuaded to cover the 10,000 miles in an Evora sports car provided by Norfolk-based manufacturer, Lotus.

“I had thought of riding between each course, but decided that would be impracticable,” he said. “So I'm swapping one horsepower for 284 horsepower, because Lotus are lending me a fabulous car to get about, and paying for the petrol.

“I'm already in training because this 60:60 challenge is going to be quite a marathon. I'm hoping to raise a serious amount of money and would ask as many people as possible to join me.

“Everyone agrees we want more people to go racing, especially younger people who are the next generation of enthusiasts, and I hope this will be one of way of doing it.”

Hurt, an Oscar-nominated actor whose 120-strong list of film credits includes the Elephant Man, Alien, the Harry Potter series, was at the launch of the 60:60 challenge in Kensington on Tuesday.

His portrayal of Champion moved cinema audiences to tears when it was released, but he recalled he had fallen off horses repeatedly during filming.

“As I looked up from the floor one time, I remember hearing someone say: 'Why can't we just get a jockey that can act?'” he said. “This is a rather marvellous campaign and I wish Bob every possible bit of fortune, luck and enjoyment.”

David Hunter, clerk of the course at Fakenham, said Champion was a popular visitor to race meetings at Fakenham, who had often been booked to give speeches at corporate events.

“I am delighted that Bob is doing this and I am also delighted he will be visiting all these courses in a Norfolk-made racing car,” said Mr Hunter.

“I would call him a good friend of racing in Fakenham - he is definitely in that category and a lot of other courses would like to put him in that category too.

“He is knowledgeable and passionate about his racing and works tirelessly for his charity foundation.”

“If John Hurt has come racing here, I am not aware of it, but I would like to think Fakenham is a place people can come and have an enjoyable, relaxed and unpressured day out, whether they are known or not. It would be fantastic if he did turn up with Bob.”

The 60:60 Challenge will begin at Ascot on April 18. Money raised will benefit the Bob Champion Cancer Trust, which has raised more than �12m for research into the disease, and the Injured Jockeys' Fund.

Pledges of at least �50 will give 50 people the chance to accompany Champion on a tour of each venue.

For more information, visit www.champions6060.org.uk