Dunwoody: An unbridled passion for racing

Andrew Longmore bids a fond farewell to the retiring Irishman, whose brilliance set new standards

A delightful letter arrived after one of my early pieces on Richard Dunwoody. It was written by Vice Admiral Sir Louis Le Bailly - there's a name to drop - who was chairman of governors at Rendcomb College, where Dunwoody was schooled.

A delightful letter arrived after one of my early pieces on Richard Dunwoody. It was written by Vice Admiral Sir Louis Le Bailly - there's a name to drop - who was chairman of governors at Rendcomb College, where Dunwoody was schooled.

"When he defied the headmaster (and I think his parents) to forgo any more 'Academe' and become a jockey, although not knowing him well, I unreservedly said he 'must follow his star'," the admiral wrote. Now, after the announcement of Dunwoody's retirement last week, it is the other members of that special band of weighing-room brothers who have to follow the star, because, for all Tony McCoy's prodigious brilliance, the real star of National Hunt racing was Dunwoody.

Dunwoody had long since forfeited his pretensions to the jockeys' title. One look at the gaunt features of McCoy, his natural successor, was enough to remind him of those obsessive battles for supremacy with Adrian Maguire, which brought Dunwoody three titles and to within a finger-touch of a nervous breakdown. But the way he handled himself off the course and, from intensely introverted beginnings, became the spokesman for a group notoriously slow to push their own cause, indicates that racing has lost more than a statistical marvel. It has lost its placebo, the control by which every performance by every other jockey is measured.

In the range of his skills, in measuring a horse for a fence and in the instinctive fusion of horse and jockey, Dunwoody had no peer. Only John Francome, who Dunwoody modestly regards as the greatest of all time, could coax the best out of a horse so regularly without routinely resorting to the sharp end of the whip.

The figures are easily dispensed with: 1,699 winners, the most in history. But no shortage of quality either. Dunwoody is the only person to have ridden more than 1,000 winners and completed the NH trilogy of Grand National (West Tip, 1986, and Miinnehoma, 1995), Gold Cup (Charter Party, 1988) and Champion Hurdle (Kribensis, 1990).

I was once told that the way to tell a great jockey from the rest is to watch his hands in the moments before a fence. The best have already anticipated pace and stride and have communicated the message down the reins with the merest hint of a flick or a push. If there is a flurry of last-minute activity on board, the jockey is not doing his job.

Dunwoody was eerily still and, because he sat so low driving a horse into an obstacle that the silhouettes of horse and jockey were almost one, he was able to absorb more than his share of the inevitable disagreements. His brilliance on Miinnehoma at Aintree was not confined to the finish, when his waiting tactics required an iron nerve, but included hauling Miinnehoma off his nose at Becher's Brook. In his compact style over fences and at the finish, Dunwoody refined the more upright style of the old-fashioned heroes of the jumps, Fred Winter, Stan Mellor and Peter Scudamore, and invested it with a low-slung flat-jockey's polish.

Dunwoody's career was a personal pilgrimage. John Buckingham, the wizened weighing-room valet who had seen most things in jump racing, thought Scudamore was the byword for single-mindedness until he saw the Ulsterman, stern-faced and wrapped in a blanket of concentration. In the 1994-95 season, Dunwoody and Maguire's duel for the title opened the closed little world of National Hunt to a wider audience. It was widely billed as the tilt of the young turk at the old master, with Dunwoody, admired but never loved by the punters, taking the role of cold-eyed villain. At Nottingham, in a tinpot selling hurdle, Maguire's attempt to sneak up Dunwoody's inner - the ultimate insult - brought Maguire a crashing fall into a running rail and his rival a hefty suspension. But Dunwoody recovered to win the title and vowed never to put his body through the same distress again.

Instead, having severed his connection with Martin Pipe, Dunwoody stood back from his own obsessive nature and took stock. Of all the moves he ever made on the course, this was the bravest. He was still a dangerous man to have sniffing around your rides, still a regular resident of the sauna, and remained as tenacious as ever in a finish, but his character became more rounded, the smile more frequent, the inner man more relaxed. To his delight, he found that racing would come to him. Trainers on both sides of the Irish Sea clamoured for his services. The temper, though, was never on the longest fuse. A combination of an arm injury which ended his career and a succession of disappointing rides brought him to blows with his fellow Irishman Mick Fitzgerald at Ascot last season. The mellower man could only take so much.

Dunwoody will pursue a career in sports sponsorship and marketing with the same sense of purpose. He already has his own company, Dunwoody Pride. The leap from sportsman to businessman will doubtless be made with the ease of all the others. And, I would wager, without any dimming of the star.