It is one of the quainter aspects of our horse racing calendar that steeplechasing continues until well into the cricket season, and next year it will go on even longer. Another is that the final few weeks of the marathon are played out not on the major stages but up and down a Betjemanesque branchline of provincial tracks from Towcester to Worcester and Hereford and back; with a few trips up to Perth in between. On Friday evening the train stopped at Stratford-upon- Avon and both the gladiators were present.
The picturesque Warwickshire track, renowned equally for its hunter chase fixtures and its hot beef sandwiches, can be a deliciously atmospheric venue on a warm summer night. Friday was not a warm summer night. Friday was cold and grey with the threat of rain. But the place was bulging none the less. It was just a standard late season card of frankly third-rate contests dominated by platers and plodders of the lowest class. But interest in the triple header featuring the two arch rivals was intense. And the blunt facts of Friday's exchanges were that Richard Dunwoody struck twice from his three rides, winning the long-distance hurdle on Lynch Law for Martin Pipe and driving home a novice hurdler called Sharp Dance (owned by an outfit entitled The Big Eaters) in the last. But Adrian Maguire's trio were all firing blanks. By the end of the night Dunwoody was ahead on the scoresheet by five with 184 winners to Maguire's 179.
He stretched his lead to seven yesterday evening with a victory on the favourites Errant Knight and Bottles in the second and third races at Warwick and, with only two weeks to go until the curtain comes down, the trend looks definitive.
'I'll be trying until the end and I'm just delighted that jump racing can be pulling in crowds this big in May and June,' Dunwoody said politely at Stratford. And Maguire? 'I'm not giving up. I'd like to think I will win it one day but I'm happy anyway and I'm just delighted to be riding for Mr Nicholson again next season.'
These were admirable if unexceptional sentiments. But then you don't go to Dunwoody or Maguire for the revealing comment or the sizzling one- liner. Dunwoody in particular can be almost infuriatingly mild-mannered, leaving you searching in vain for some sign of the fires that must stoke his ambition.
But then who needs elegant phrases? What more can you ask from a jockey than that they demonstrate the kind of courage and horsemanship that Maguire showed us on Viking Flagship at Cheltenham in March, a ride that led many to compare him with Jonjo O'Neill in his prime. And has anyone ever displayed more inspired judgement in a race than Dunwoody with those classical waiting tactics on Miinnehoma in the Grand National?
Yet away from the big days, the season has been a long and a stressful one for both men. Back in November Dunwoody was a haunted figure, his talent nearly paralysed by the thought that he had made a disastrous career move in severing his connections with the prestige stable of David Nicholson in order to ride for the champion trainer, a man still renowned for the quantity as much as the quality of his runners. As the virus bit ever deeper into Pipe's string, Maguire, the new retained rider at Nicholson's Cotswold yard, seemed to be taking both the season and the championship by the throat. At Christmas, Dunwoody was so far in arrears and so mired in self-doubt that you could have got long odds about him even finishing second.
Then in the new year the wheel spun the other way round. Dunwoody discovered a new agent and a a new determination. Pipe's horses woke up and after one injudicious ride at Warwick in January, Maguire's press-room 'fans' turned on him savagely.
These tensions aside (and their intensity was exemplified by that notorious barging incident at Nottingham in March), it is not platitudinous to say that the real beneficiaries of this hard-fought struggle have been a public treated to numerous outstanding feats of nerve and skill and assured that there are at least two jockeys who are always trying whatever they ride. But when the music stops on 4 June, there's unlikely to be a draw or a gentleman's agreement, and only one of them will be the outright victor.
As Dunwoody came back in to unsaddle on Lynch Law on Friday, he looked brisk and purposeful. He jumped down quickly and walked away over the grass and up the steps to weigh in. Maguire, walking about 20 yards behind him, looked tired and ever-so-slightly beaten. The champion is the champion still.
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