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Racing: Dazzle before the twilight

THE INTERVIEW: RICHARD DUNWOODY; Rider on threshold of a record will not allow varied life to compromise skill.
The walking contradiction that is Richard Dunwoody thrusts out a hand and guides me to the office of his new sports marketing company, above the estate agents at the chic end of Wimbledon High Street. Dunwoody Pride.

People laugh when they read the brochure, at the name not the idea. This is Philip Pride, Dunwoody's partner, but pride with a capital "P" has long been a feature of the man who, body and mind willing, will soon become the most successful jump jockey in history. By happy coincidence, one not even the ever-meticulous Dunwoody could plan, the winner which will take him past Peter Scudamore's career tally of 1,678 will also be his 100th of the season.

By nightfall yesterday the gap had closed to 12. Had not injury cost him a precious fortnight out of the saddle in the New Year, Florida Pearl in the Gold Cup might conceivably have given him the record 10 days from now. Cheltenham was the venue for Dunwoody's first and 1,000th winners. Knowing Dunwoody's timing, it is more likely to be the Grand National than the selling hurdle at Plumpton any way.

The Dunwoody years can be popped neatly into journalistic pigeon-holes. First there was the talented, earnest young Irishman destined for the top; then, during his epic duels for the jockeys' title with Adrian Maguire, the obsessive, stern-eyed champion; after that came the worldly wise, mellower Dunwoody and now we have the weighing-room's influential elder statesman. So it is instructive to hear Dunwoody's account of his 17th season on the treadmill.

"I had a great run through to Christmas, then I got injured in January, I come back, have a couple of winners, go 28 rides without a winner, have Marlborough fall twice when he was in front at the latter stages of a race, get into a fight, miss a winner at Warwick on the same day because of a steward's inquiry at Ascot. It just happens."

Anyone tempted to nudge Dunwoody into the twilight zone might usefully have watched the figure peering indignantly up the Ascot straight a fortnight ago after Marlborough's last-fence fall. Wisely, the ambulance men had beaten a hasty retreat, but the obsession with winning races clearly had not. A sore right arm, a legacy of that January fall - at Edinburgh, for goodness sake - only compounded a temper fizzing down the fuse. "The next race I put myself in a position I shouldn't have been, desperation stakes really. The next race, Fitzy [Mick Fitzgerald] and Norman [Williamson] squeezed me up. They were wrong. That's what led to our little confrontation." Yet the wonder is not that Fitzgerald and Dunwoody, two tough Irishmen, came to blows, but that the little daily niggles of the weighing-room do not explode into violence more often.

"Fitz said he would rather it hadn't happened," Dunwoody says. "But I don't know. I'd rather it came out in the open than simmer in the background. The funny thing is that it's the first time I've ever done that. I've never got to that stage in 17 years of riding." The quiet stroll into the sunset might have to be postponed for a year or two, though there are signs that the growing maturity of one of jump racing's most intriguing characters is not all smoke.

It is Warwick and a not particularly special afternoon's racing. Dunwoody is clinging to the inner rail, not a berth he has ever relinquished lightly, when young Lee Southern bounds up his inside. Adrian Maguire would be a critical witness in the question of what happens next. Maguire, you recall, was deposited into the running rail at Nottingham when he tried a similar manoeuvre during the dog days of their rivalry. "I did move across on him a bit. I asked him what he was doing," Dunwoody recalls. "Lee said the horse was a bit keen and he had nowhere else to go. So I left him some room. Five years ago, I would have been looking at a holiday." As he did for a month after the Maguire incident.

What has been impressive is the way Dunwoody has expanded his life without compromising his essential brilliance in the most demanding and insular of arenas. Moving to London two years ago signalled his intention to cut some of the more suffocating ties to his profession.

He has taken a step back and let racing come to him, which is as bold a move as any he has executed on the track. He rarely rides work, enjoys more than his share of good horses and has rudely shattered the myth that riding winners has to be a 24-hour a day seven-day a week compulsion. Quite the opposite. Dunwoody believes his career in silks will be prolonged by his time in a suit. "I enjoy going racing as much as I ever did, if not more. Having all the other things going on keeps me fresh. If I thought it compromised my riding, I wouldn't do it, but I find I can switch from one to the other quite easily. Once the silks are on and the helmet's tied, that's it, it's time to go out there and do it."

Dunwoody can pinpoint the moment of conversion. Coming back from a long suspension in 1993, depressed by the increasingly blinkered vision of his future, he told his mother and father that he was going to retire. It was on the Monday and Fontwell was off. The following day, he won on Allegation at Warwick, his first ride back, though his mind was in freefall."I went to Warwick that day because I had nothing else to do. There was no way I could retire. The business of race riding was all I knew."

Not any more. Ventures into other sports, most notably a couple of seasons in motor racing, have given Dunwoody a feel for market values. Jockeys, he says, are desperately undersold. The first signs of his negotiating skills will be visible at the Festival where the name of Faucets, a bathroom accessory manufacturer, will be plastered up the muddy breeches of most jockeys. The deal has been 10 years in the making and has been pushed through without much help from the sport's feudal hierarchy. On one level, Dunwoody is angered that Richard Johnson, the latest pupil in the Scudamore- Dunwoody-McCoy school of obsession, should be asked to ride work by his trainer, David Nicholson, in the week he was suspended. "Richard's getting 900 rides a year and his body's taking a terrible pounding," he says. "Doesn't the Duke [Nicholson] want his rider to be fresh?" On another, that A.P. McCoy, one of sport's most gifted champions, should still be able to walk down the street unrecognised. "It's only in the last three or four years that jockeys have become more commercially aware. Otherwise we'd still be in the dark ages."

No easy money will be on offer at the Cheltenham Festival. Three days of switchback action test the nerves of horses, riders and punters to the limit. The sense of anticipation does not lessen with the years, says Dunwoody, not when the Gold Cup favourite is among your hand of rides, at least. Florida Pearl has all the attributes of a champion: good temperament, high cruising speed and an ability to quicken. Dunwoody's experience will be critical in ironing out some quirky jumping habits. Dunwoody brushes off his old impersonation of a Trappist monk. "One of the best I've ridden for sure, but we'll know just how good at Cheltenham." The suggestion that retirement might follow a second victory in the Gold Cup and the capture of Scu's record brings a more forceful response.

"I know people think that, but as long as I'm still happy with the way I'm riding, I'll keep going. Believe me, there is nothing I hate more than giving a horse a bad ride and I know when that happens." What's the benchmark? "Five or six a season, wouldn't want it to be any more than that.

"As long as you nick a few off the others as well. It's becoming harder. The standard of jockeyship is unbelievably high. I think if I started now, with my ability, I'd really struggle. There is no way I was as natural as Richard Johnson. I look at some of the early videos and they're embarrassing."

Whether, at the age of 35, the body can hold together for much longer remains to be seen. But there is some unfinished business before the last big leap.