Maguire keeps a firm grip on his title resolve

racing: A young Irishman is ideally placed to capitalise on a probable ban for the champion jockey. Richard Edmondson reports `Never mind next year. In this game you never know if there is going to be a next year'
Click to follow
Adrian Maguire's New Year resolution will have been to hang on. To attach himself to Richard Dunwoody in the chase for the National Hunt jockeys' title and to adhere himself, as best as possible, to the back of his mounts.

Failure to follow the second brief resulted in a rare lapse by the young Irishman in the King George VI Chase at Kempton on Boxing Day. The anguish of his last-fence fall from Barton Bank that day when 10 lengths clear was such that he could not articulate his thoughts. In fact, only recently has he been able to reflect on that afternoon.

"The stride was there at the last but the horse was tired and he didn't come up," he said. "I reckon he only got tired in the last five strides before the fence. It was the most disappointing day I've had in racing."

There have been plenty of good ones already for the 23-year-old, more recently with the co-operation of the trainer David Nicholson, who is known reverentially within the sport as "The Duke". While Nicholson's bark may be worse than his bite, he can still take Rottweiler chunks out of those he dislikes (as a photographer who intruded on his comforting of Maguire at Kempton will testify). The Duke's other vivid trait is his unswerving loyalty, which puts him in the Violet Kray "they're good boys really"


While Maguire, who has his own nickname in Britain's weighing rooms ("the Golden Child"), was with Michael Hourigan in Ireland there were reports he was getting too close to being a clever clogs. Nicholson will have none of this. In fact, his thoughts onthe young jockey sound suspiciously like the words a schoolboy would use when filling in his own report. "He's quiet, he doesn't say much and he gets on with his job," the trainer said. "He's a smashing person to work with and it's smashing t o be in his company."

All this and he can ride, too. Nicholson, in addition, will tell you that Maguire is the best jockey we have ever seen. "I liked his ability to ride over an obstacle," he said. "I noticed it when he rode three winners for Geoff Hubbard at Sandown a couple of seasons back.

"He's also the best schooling jockey I've ever seen. A lot of jockeys don't enjoy it, but he does. He loves it."

The schooling work is what racegoers never see and rarely consider. One freezing, dark morning in the Cotswolds this winter was typical of Maguire's modus operandi once the alarm bell rings. The breath came out in plumes and the lanes leading to Nicholson's Jackdaws Castle base were quiet enough for deer to be attending the roadside. In the stable office, the telephone was already warm at 6.53. Outside, under a twinkling light above each box, workriders prepared the first lot. In Bishops Island's quarters, wearing a yellow cap smothered with shamrocks, was Maguire. He may be the brightest rocket to land here for a decade, but, that morning, he was just another rider.

As Bishops Island crunched his bit, Maguire brushed him down, tidied the mane and checked his hooves. A footballer who had reached Maguire's level would be collecting his boots from an acned apprentice, but the jockey is not disgruntled by such menial tasks. "It's not a very hard job to throw a saddle on a horse and brush out his tail," he said. "Race riding is what people see, but you have to work behind the scenes as well."

On the gallops, in a half light, Maguire directed his partner over grass flecked white with frost. "Schooling is part of the job and you have to do it, but I enjoy it," he said. "It gives you a chance to get to know the horses you're going to be riding and teach them yourself how to jump."

After Bishops Island, Maguire climbed on to Sevso, a mare who had never run over hurdles in public. The following day, at Hereford, she won on her debut.

The victories have not been slow in coming this season, but Maguire still finds himself 17 adrift of Dunwoody despite a double at Ascot yesterday taking his total to 93. With the champion jockey widely anticipated to be on the verge of a riding ban following a recent misdemeanour there is every prospect of a behemoth contest between the pair to match their duel of last season.

That competition went to the final day of the campaign, with Maguire going down by three winners. As the older Dunwoody has suggested there are several more seasons in him it may be that this racing rivalry may develop into a captivating head-to-head.

In a recent book, Dunwoody revealed that he did not underestimate his most potent foe. "It's so early in his career that comparisons with other great jockeys I've competed against are dangerous, but Adrian does seem to combine the qualities of horsemanship and jockeyship in a way which I've not previously seen," he wrote. "He has a real rapport with every horse he rides and that priceless ability to see a stride."

Such bonhomie seemed distant at Nottingham last March, when Dunwoody forced his rival off the track and through the wing of a hurdle in what was the season's most compelling flashpoint. The fact that both men were drinking together later that day is testament that jockeys realise they are battling with courses and horses more than they are with each other. Indeed, if the same set of circumstances were to arise, a similar outcome would appear inevitable. Dunwoody is adamant he will give the inside to no one; Maguire insists he would bolt for a gap if it ever opened in front of him.

"We didn't have a cross word to say to each other about that day, but he knows himself he did wrong," Maguire said. "We left it at that and he bought me a drink on the way home.

"It's just that when we get out on the racecourse it's business. He's out there to do a job and I'm out there to do the same job. Afterwards, we have a laugh and get on well together."

Maguire disputes one theory: that he was not as hungry as his rival last year and could have changed his approach. "I never once thought: `Never mind if you lose, there's always next year'," he said. "In this game you never know if there is going to be anext year."

One factor has changed, however. In his early years, Maguire's use of the whip betrayed the land of his origin, where the rules are somewhat more relaxed. He had too much of the technique of a maid in service attending to a dusty rug on the washing line.That has been modified. "I'm trying to be more tidy up on a horse and I'm trying to keep the whip lower and not use it as much, just wave it a bit more," he said. "Maybe I was trying too hard and you don't need to do that. All I was doing was trying to win too much and getting carried away a little bit."

Nonetheless, of all his weapons, it is Maguire's sheer will to win that is the most influential. The man behind the blue eyes, freckles and ski jump nose, the person inside the chunky frame that belongs behind a rugby pack, has traded on sheer combativeness since the days he rode ponies. "There are a lot of good jockeys who never got the chance. I was lucky. I got that chance," he said. "I'm not sure what the difference was. I know I love winning. Maybe, that's it."

Events have travelled fast since Maguire won as an amateur at the 1991 Cheltenham Festival. Yet Maguire himself hopes he will not waste this swift education. "A lot of people have said it's happening too quickly for me and I often wonder myself," he said. "Maybe some people thought I was just a flash in the pan, but I've tried to make the best of it and it still seems to be working for me. And I still think I can get better."