Racing: Munro completes voyage of discovery

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The Independent Online

It would not fall to many to be able to return to the scene of their greatest triumph after an extended self-imposed exile abroad and a lengthy sabbatical from the sport. Yet, 14 years less a day after riding Generous to victory in the Derby, and 11 weeks after his first ride in Britain for more than eight seasons, Alan Munro will be once again entrusted with a set of reins, those of French challenger Walk In The Park, in the world's most famous race.

It would not fall to many to be able to return to the scene of their greatest triumph after an extended self-imposed exile abroad and a lengthy sabbatical from the sport. Yet, 14 years less a day after riding Generous to victory in the Derby, and 11 weeks after his first ride in Britain for more than eight seasons, Alan Munro will be once again entrusted with a set of reins, those of French challenger Walk In The Park, in the world's most famous race.

Perhaps it says something about the weighing room talent in this country that he has been able to walk back in at this level. Maybe it says more about himself. Munro, 38, has been self-assured all his life, a trait which he admits may have been interpreted as arrogance in his callow youth. At the press conference after his Derby victory, riled by earlier criticism, he told the world's media to mind their own business.

But then, he has always been slightly left field. He was inspired as a schoolboy to become a jockey after seeing a profile of wunderkind Steve Cauthen, newly arrived in Britain from the States, on John Craven's Newsround and the fact that he had never sat on a horse was a minor detail. As an apprentice he spent his winters developing his skills in the States, sojourns that gave him a trademark low, streamlined crouch, just the toes in the irons, whip in antenna position. And there are certainly no other riders with a karate black belt.

Munro's first Group winner came on Mac's Imp in the Coventry Stakes at Royal Ascot in 1990. In second place, coincidentally, was the horse who less than a year later changed his life, Generous, after he controversially replaced Richard Quinn in the saddle before the Derby. Once established by the chestnut's exploits, Munro began to be aware of the lucrative opportunities offered by racing in the Far East, and eventually went off to ride permanently in Hong Kong and Japan. The crucible of the Asian circuit is such that the normal lifespan there is three years. Munro lasted for seven, but when he burnt out, he did it properly.

A bad injury, then a lengthy suspension were the catalysts. In 2000, Munro announced that he was quitting race riding not just in Hong Kong, but everywhere. And the ensuing time has been a journey of rediscovery. "Hong Kong is an incredible place," he said. "It became home. But it is a seriously high-pressure environment. The prize money is huge and you just must keep riding winners. Eventually, the passion ran out."

Enter another. Munro turned to martial arts as a physical and mental release and found the reserves in both departments to reach the highest level. He stayed in Hong Kong, but dropped out of the horse world completely. "It was something of a culture shock," he said. "In racing, I was known. Outside, I had no identity, and no skills. Racing is a sheltered environment and you step back into the real world with nothing. It was a difficult transition and I was very lost for a year."

Munro learned fast when he turned his hand to business. His first dotcom venture failed; the second one, in the field of hospitality, is up and running and doing well. "By the third year out of racing I'd developed a new identity," he said, "and new interests and friends. Being in the real world gives you a much better perspective."

Late last year, refreshed, Munro turned his newly objective gaze back to his first love. He had not sat on a horse for four years but if karate doesn't keep a body hard, nothing does. A scheduled return to race-riding over six weeks in New Zealand, starting in humble trials with apprentices, was completed in three.

He returned to Britain with a bang and a whisper and a bang. His first ride back, on Rod Millman-trained Phantom Whisper in the first two-year-old race of the year at Lingfield in March, was a winning one, the first of 19 victories so far. But ghosts may have stuck as well as his class. The Jockey Club are currently investigating an alleged fight between Munro and Quinn in the weighing room at Newmarket eight days ago.

It was a considered decision to come back here, rather than elsewhere. "England still is the most prestigious place to be riding," he said. "And I want to be close to my mum. She's not been well and I'd been away too long."

That Munro is still stylish after all these years was not lost on Walk In The Park's owner, Michael Tabor. "I could hardly have expected a Derby ride, and I'm thrilled," said the jockey. "He's an impressive horse, quite aggressive, but well-mannered and mature." Winning would be good, and Walk In The Park is not the most forlorn of outsiders. But the most important thing for this dark-haired man with the piercingly aware brown eyes is being there. Being Alan Munro.

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