Racing: Five years on, a doyen is still obsessed with life on the edge

Interview - Richard Dunwoody: The former champion jockey could not get danger out of his system. Nick Townsend meets a role model who finds his 'lesser life' has much to offer
Click to follow
The Independent Online

It was at Perth racecourse on 21 August 1999, that a horse by the decidedly inappropriate name of Classic Manoeuvre brought Richard Dunwoody to earth. In every sense. The three-times champion jockey could scarcely have known, on a day of otherwise conspicuous success with three victories, that this would be his valedictory performance. That thereafter, as he concludes bitterly in his autobiography, Obsessed, the injury sustained within the grounds of Scone Palace would deliver him to "a lesser life".

It was at Perth racecourse on 21 August 1999, that a horse by the decidedly inappropriate name of Classic Manoeuvre brought Richard Dunwoody to earth. In every sense. The three-times champion jockey could scarcely have known, on a day of otherwise conspicuous success with three victories, that this would be his valedictory performance. That thereafter, as he concludes bitterly in his autobiography, Obsessed, the injury sustained within the grounds of Scone Palace would deliver him to "a lesser life".

Now, approaching five years later, you gain the impression that the jockey to whom many of today's aspirants genuflect as their inspiration, and who sometimes acts as a horsemanship adviser to them - Tony McCoy included - has finally accepted that existence among us lesser mortals does have its consolations. For a start, no evidence of the grim reaper at your shoulder, urging your steeds to propel you into the turf every afternoon you go to work.

Seventeen seasons; more than 10,000 rides under National Hunt rules in Britain and Ireland; 1,871 victories; 583 falls. It's surely enough for any man simply to mutter thanks to his god and move on. The Irishman has, in many ways, although even now there is more than a suspicion that a certain regret lingers. "Of course. I still miss riding, and it's worse at this time of the year, with Cheltenham and Aintree approaching," he concedes.

After that Perth fall, Dunwoody immediately sought treatment from the best practitioners California could offer in an attempt to repair the damage to his neck and right shoulder. He flew home eventually with the warning that he could lose the use of his right arm if he continued in the saddle.

Today, Dunwoody still appears fit enough to do himself justice on the racetrack. Lose a few pounds and he would be trim enough for the Festival, you suggest. "I'm in better shape now than when I was last in the saddle," he agrees. "But you have to let it go. I'm 40 now. If I was banging on the floor every day I'd soon be in no shape for it anyway."

This week, he will be just another spectator with an opinion, albeit a rather more educated one than most. Strangely, for a man who secured just about every major prize, including a Gold Cup and a Champion Hurdle, one Festival race that eluded him was the Queen Mother Champion Chase, "although I must have jumped the last upsides or in front seven years". This year, he agrees, it is probably a two-horse race. "Azertyuiop is a great horse, and Moscow Flyer, too, but you never know; something may come and do them. Isio's a nice horse, too, isn't he?"

He adds: "As for Best Mate [in the Gold Cup], he's a lovely horse. I can't really see him getting beat, but it's a Gold Cup. I've been there with three favourites, in the Gold Cup, Champion Hurdle and Champion Chase, and not won any of them." You imagine that Dunwoody in his pomp would have relished Best Mate. "I like the way Jim [Culloty] rides him," says the man who won two Grand Nationals, on West Tip and Miinnehoma, and rode Desert Orchid to two King George triumphs. "It's not A P's [Tony McCoy's] style, of course. A P's a lot more hustle and bustle. If I was riding, I'd be more like Jim Culloty than A P. I always took the view that if you've got a horse running sweet then let the horse do that. Let them travel."

We met at the Chelsea Village Hotel, 10 minutes from his Fulham flat. Across the room, Ken Bates was deep in discussion. For once, though, the back pages, and some front ones, too, concerned themselves not with football's triumphs and ills, but horseracing's malaise.

Like many who know intimately the business, and the characters who inhabit it, Dunwoody believes that the champion Flat jockey, Kieren Fallon, rode an ill-judged rather than a dishonest race at Lingfield recently, when his mount Ballinger Ridge was caught on the line after being 10 lengths clear at one point. "As Kieren says, he just rode a flipping awful race," says Dunwoody of his compatriot. "He loves winning and he'll have been sick when that horse passed him. It's something he'll never repeat, that's for sure."

Dunwoody adds: "As a jockey, if you do things blatantly, you're going to get caught and pay the penalty for it. But behind the scenes at home trainers can influence results of races far more easily. All they need to do is to put a horse in the wrong race, run it on the wrong ground, or over the wrong distance. But that said, there's a lot less skulduggery in the sport than people like to make out."

The fact is that, in horseracing, the dextrous fingers of the would-be fixers and manipulators have always been at work. It is inevitable in a sport reliant on betting. "I was asked two or three times to stop horses," says Dunwoody. "I was simply told by the trainer or owner, 'Right, that won't win', but I just couldn't do it."

He laughs to himself at the recollection. "In fact, on two of those three occasions, the horse couldn't have won if you'd have picked it up and carried it. There was another that I did lose on, but not through any lack of effort on my part. I was very hard on it all the way from the third last and nearly won the race. I ignored what the trainer had said, and he was not very happy. The fellow in question had gone a bit white in the face when I came back. I don't think I rode for him that much again..."

From his boyhood days in Ireland, there had been no doubting Dunwoody's affinity with horses and ponies. But he was never a ready-made champion because he was too heavy-boned. As a youngster, he was taunted that his weight made him unsuitable to become a jockey. At one time he fought against the development of his own teenage body and made himself ill by adopting a frugal diet. Fortunately, his mother, Gillian, recognised the signs in time.

He began his career in the Flat yard of the late Paul Kelleway, but weight soon dictated that he would turn towards National Hunt racing, and after an initial period with John Bosley, he moved on to Captain Tim Foster before joining that doyen of jump racing, "The Duke", David Nicholson, for whom he won the 1988 Cheltenham Gold Cup on Charter Party, one of Dunwoody's 18 Festival successes.

These days, Dunwoody actually reviews that victory with ambivalence. "I was too hard on him," Dunwoody confesses. "I look back at that race and I hate what I see. I was well clear after the last and I beat him up. I should have got banned for it. It wasn't good riding. If I'd have done that now, I'd have been strung up for two weeks."

In mitigation, use of the whip at that time was far more liberal. Dunwoody concurs. "Look at Scu [Peter Scudamore]. He is the strongest jockey I ever rode against. Stronger in a finish, stronger overall than A P. But he started out too whip-reliant. He adapted his style when the tougher rules [on the use of the whip] came in."

It was Scudamore's retirement in April 1993, which ensured that Dunwoody secured his first championship. The need to repeat the feat became an obsession. He achieved it as stable jockey to the prolific winner-accumulator Martin Pipe. It was an exhausting process. In the 1993-94 season, in a manic duel with Adrian Maguire, Dunwoody required 890 rides before eventually claiming victory by 197 wins to 194. Hence the title of his life story? "I had to be [obsessive] to get there," he insists. "There was no way I'd have beaten Adrian otherwise."

Yet, there was a significant fall-out: the breakdown of his marriage. "I still speak to Carol, my ex-wife. I think she's fantastic. I'm not blaming racing. I've got no regrets at all. Carol's actually remarried now, to a very good friend of mine, Chris Nash, and I'm delighted for her. I'm enjoying my single life living up here."

Here, in fashionable Fulham, is merely a base camp for a myriad adventures. Sports psychologist Peter Terry, a man whom Dunwoody claims was a crucial aid to him winning that 1993-94 championship, once described his client as "an attention-seeker, addicted to speed and danger". Terry is evidently a pretty shrewd judge.

Having trekked 350 miles to the magnetic north pole last year, Dunwoody is preparing for an even more daunting challenge. "We've got an Irish expedition together, and we're hoping to be the fastest unsupported team to the geographic north pole next year," he says. "This will be the biggest thing I've ever undertaken, around 450 miles from Northern Canada to the pole. It's going to be very tough."

As he will attest, having completed the "easier" polar race last year. "It was completely mind-numbing, literally, and we had to deal with injuries, the cold, even with the odd polar bear. You're skiing cross-country for 13 hours a day, pulling a sledge through ice-rubble fields. You can't just say, 'Get me out of here'. You have to get through it."

If that was not sufficient to occupy this character who is part Michael Palin, part Indiana Jones, with just a dash of Lawrence of Arabia thrown in, this summer he will be involved in a riding holiday in Kurdi-stan. Before that, he is also running his third London Marathon.

There is more to this "lesser life" than Dunwoody could ever have imagined. After galvanising his mounts to a modern-day record of victories up that stamina-sapping Cheltenham hill, he has found other severe gradients to climb.

Biography: Richard Dunwoody MBE

Career highs: 1,699 winners in Britain from 9,399 rides. British champion three times, between 1992 and 1995.

Other statistics: Recorded 10 seasonal centuries (1989 to 1999). Had 18 Cheltenham Festival winners. Major wins include Champion Hurdle (Kribensis, 1990), Cheltenham Gold Cup (Charter Party, 1988) and Grand National (West Tip, 1986, Miinnehoma, 1994).

Awards include: National Hunt Jockey of the Year in 1990 and 1992-95; the Ritz Club Trophy for leading rider at Cheltenham in 1990 and 1996; leading rider at the Aintree Grand National Festival in 1986, 1988, 1992 and 1997.

Also: Rode in 15 consecutive Grand Nationals between 1985 and 1999.