Dunwoody on a high back from the edge

Richard Edmondson finds a growing contentment in the champion jockey
It was horsemanship that would have been appreciated from the Calgary stampede to Argentina's polo fields and the Cossack plains of old Russia.

When Richard Dunwoody forced Unguided Missile's lolling head in front on the line at Ascot on Saturday it completed a ride that was a triumph for all that the jockey had learned in his years in the saddle. It was also victory for the renaissance Dunwoody, who has locked away the stern figure of old for a more joyous existence.

Balance has long been the Ulsterman's greatest ally, and he employed this to maximum effect on Saturday when Unguided Missile negotiated the last open ditch as tanks used to take on hedges in northern France. Dunwoody maintained the partnership before achieving the greatest escape since our chaps started depositing earth down the inside of their trousers.

"Someone said I'd lost an iron, but I hadn't, otherwise I'd have fallen off," he recalled. "What happened was that the saddle slipped quite badly and if it had stayed where it was, down on one side, I would have pulled up. But I was going so well that I was able to spend a few strides using my body weight to get it back into place, but I only got it back to a certain extent."

Dunwoody was therefore hampered over the next two obstacles by a shifting seat and at the last by a mistake from his partner, who slipped and adopted the posture of a burrowing rodent. Yet he still got back up to win. "All credit to the horse," he said, yet all the jockey credits this season have been flowing the way of Thomas Richard Dunwoody MBE.

It seems odd to relate that nearly 12 months ago he was almost lost to National Hunt racing. The self-absorption it takes to become a champion jockey had taken Dunwoody to the edge of the ravine. His body was moaning from the constant wasting, his marriage was in tatters (the husband will tell you he was no cherub in this relationship) and the word retirement came flickering into his head.

That the knuckles of the sport's competitive element was squeezing the life out of Dunwoody was exemplified one January day this year at Uttoxeter, where he ran Luke Harvey, a pal of his, off the track. There followed a 30-day suspension and the stirring of unused cogs in Dunwoody's mind.

The Irish trainer Barry Kelly, a good friend, had just died in a road accident and Dunwoody immersed himself in travel, riding work for Paddy Rudkin in Dubai, and going skiing. When he put the key in the lock on his return home he found, for the first time in his sporting life, that there was no immediate urge to get equipment out and ready himself for competition.

Dunwoody decided to trim the schedule, expand his waist and, most staggeringly of all, relinquish the post as Martin Pipe's stable rider, a job that was virtually handcuffed to the jockeys' championship. "I'd had it in the back of my mind for a few years to stick up the weight and ride more when it suited," he said. "It just came round sooner than I'd anticipated.

"The one factor this year that helps is that I'm not rushing around every day. You can't expect to be at your best if you're doing it day in day out, wasting and getting falls. How could you physically be at your best in that situation? To be champion jockey you can't ride like I am.

"I could get up to a journalist's weight very quickly and, as it is now, the bootman told me I'd put on an extra inch round my calf muscles when he was measuring me up for this year."

The result of the new regime has been staggering. While Dunwoody is not going to win a fourth championship this season he has become the man to follow blindly in the neon events. If the 0898 or hopeful envelope brigades need a system to advocate it should be to follow Dunwoody's Saturday special. Before this weekend he had recorded memorable successes on the Irish-trained Sound Man and Merry Gale.

His decision to return more regularly to his homeland has coincided with an era when the leaves are returning to a once near-barren tree of the sport over the water. "I like having winners in Ireland and there are decent horses these days," he said. "There are as many owners over there now in search of a top-class horse as in England, if not more. The Irish scene on the whole is pretty healthy."

The impact of these winning moments is also evident. In days before, Dunwoody finished a job, even a winning one, with the look of a drained commuter propped up by fellow travellers in a tube train. Now each victorious ride appears to be greeted with a grateful slap to his conveyance and an expansive smile which shows the damage his trade has done. He looks like Dracula in a blood bank.

The jockey is too proud a man to concede that this new-found sanguine approach has improved his riding but there are busloads around to disagree with him. At the age of 31, and finally at peace with himself, many believe Richard Dunwoody is in the best form of his life.