Cheltenham: Dunwoody psyche all about winning

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The Independent Online
WILLIE MULLINS knows the Cheltenham Festival and knows it needs more than sheer ability to conquer in the fiercest of arenas. The trainer believes Florida Pearl to be good enough and will wait until this afternoon's Gold Cup before he discovers whether his horse also has the requisite courage and grit in his armoury. This is not a conundrum he faces with his jockey.

Thomas Richard Dunwoody MBE has been talented for a long time now, but more than that he has maintained a frightening level of intensity throughout his career. It is probably true that Dunwoody would gallop over a grandmother if she stood between him and the finishing line. And that includes his own.

At the age of 35, when some men are putting on chunky jumpers and hanging up their tankards behind the local bar, Dunwoody continues his yomp through self-denial. The Ulsterman has ridden in about 10,000 races, many times at weights unnatural for his frame. A lot of perspiration has come sprinkling out of that body down the years as he has punished himself in saunas.

Dunwoody has taken risks with injuries and always played devilishly hard on the racecourse. Trying to go up his inside is akin to swimming with the crocodiles.

The old boy is, however, not as active as he used to be, though to suggest he is winding down greatly is nonsense. He still rides more than most jockeys and is active in Ireland most weekends. In several days' time he will pass Peter Scudamore's career record of 1,677 winners. Then he will kick on again. "Cheltenham is the first priority," he said at the beginning of the week. "Then it's the Gold Cup, Scu's record and after that we'll set other sights."

Scu will happily wave Dunwoody by. He remembers the sacrifices it took to get there and that is not a land he wants to revisit. "Richard's greatest asset is his determination," Scudamore says. "I always thought Francome was extremely brave, but calculated at the same time, weighing up the risks. Dunwoody and McCoy are different. They don't believe they can get hurt. Their type of bravery astounds me.

"Richard is very, very competitive in what he does, but he's a different person when you get him away from all that. There are some sportsmen who are just ignorant pigs, but he is genuinely a nice fellow."

There are some of Dunwoody's colleagues who may not recognise this description. He is ruthless on the plains out there, and when he is wronged he does not store his frustration. Just recently he came to blows with Mick Fitzgerald in the weighing-room. The Belfast-born man may no longer be the leading figure in the pride, but he remains a character with whom few mess.

"He's slightly mellower now, but maybe that's his way of coping with the fact that he's not riding as many winners as McCoy and [Richard] Johnson," Jamie Osborne, a weighing-room colleague, says. "He would never admit it, but he's had a mental battle with himself to reconcile the fact that he is no longer champion jockey. He's given himself a talking-to so he could come to terms with the fact that people say things about McCoy which they never said about him."

There remains though something of the grim reaper about Richard Dunwoody. He is hired on a contract killer's basis to do a job clinically and efficiently. He still executes and expects to do so for three more years to come. And when it is all over, he will still not be a man with whom to have a game of social tennis with barley water at the change round.

"He couldn't bear to lose at anything, and gets himself in a right state at the thought of it," Osborne says. "Whenever he's doing anything competitive, he takes on a slightly different persona. When you're in that situation he gives the impression he would rather die than lose a little game.

"We're all competitive, but he is excessive and, for example, he couldn't enjoy a ride unless he won on it. The pressure of a race and the desire to beat a man to the line overrides the actual kick you might get from riding while you're doing it. But, in retrospect, most of us can come back and think `jeez that gave me a good ride', regardless of finishing position. Richard couldn't do that unless he won. Winning to him is everything."

They respect Dunwoody in the weighing-room. They admire his tenacity, his sang-froid and the way he allies determination and ability. "I still think he's technically the best rider I've ever seen," Osborne says. "McCoy is brilliant at what he does, but Richard is marginally superior on a technical level.

"When you've ridden round with these guys for so many years you get a completely different insight into how they approach the job, the way they ride horses. And you don't see what Dunwoody does on a horse a lot of the time.

"McCoy's style is a bit freaky, while Richard is pretty textbook. He's a good model for anyone to copy. If any lad asks me who they should attempt to model themselves on, I say Richard. McCoy gets away with what he does only because he has bags and bags of ability. People who attempt to copy him will end up in a coffin."

That is not a box in which we will be able to inter Richard Dunwoody's race-riding career for some time yet, though the injuries are now less easier to ride, his body regularly more colourful than his reaction to the wins at the moment. "Like the majority of jockeys in the weighing- room, I'm carrying an injury at the moment [a damaged right arm]," he says. "It's not easy, but I'm getting by. I've been struggling a little bit.

"There are always degrees of discomfort when you're a jockey and certainly a month ago I wasn't happy about how things were. It's a little better now."

You don't fool us, Dunwoody. You'd still be here if your arm were in a box in the British museum. The pursuit of winning remains his oxygen and it will be a part of him for ever. This afternoon Florida Pearl will answer questions about conviction and application. A master of those disciplines will be in very close proximity.

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