Racing: Drive control the key to Dunwoody's ambition: More relaxed during races but determined to keep a tight grip on his title, the champion jump jockey talks to Richard Edmondson

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SOUTHWELL, last week, and Richard Dunwoody returned to the weighing room after a treble that clawed back a portion of the yawning gap that lies between him and Adrian Maguire in the jockeys' championship. 'Bloody hell,' Jamie Osborne, his colleague, said. 'You can ride again.'

Dunwoody, the champion jockey, is amused by this passage, but less so by derogatory mutterings about his performance in the saddle this season. As Maguire has forced his way over the horizon in the title race, the man from Northern Ireland has had to endure concerted criticism for the first time in his career. He has heard that he cannot ride front-runners, keeps falling from horses and, perhaps worst of all, that confidence has fled his body.

Dunwoody himself is not inclined to agree with this. 'I just think it's a load of bollocks,' he said. 'Sure, Adrian is riding well for the Duke (David Nicholson, the trainer who retains him), but I had nearly a 40 per cent strike-rate for him last year and almost everything I jumped on seemed to be winning. That jockey last year must have been good because he had a better strike-rate than Adrian has this year.

'People can say what they like, but I think I'm riding as well as I ever have.'

Early morning in the Oxfordshire village of Sparsholt, and all looks comfortable for one household. A sign to Hyperion House stands at the top of a long driveway leading to a red Porsche outside a huge, barn-style home.

But inside Thomas Richard Dunwoody MBE, the champion jockey, is worried. Worried about the standard of horses he is getting to ride outside his main job with Martin Pipe. On a rare day off, he is liaising with his agent, Robert Parsons, and booking rides for the days ahead. As the dialling goes on, it is appropriate that Dunwoody pinpoints the closing weeks of last season and a defeat in the telephoney war as the starting point for his struggling position this term.

'At the end of last season I could see this happening, what with Dave Roberts doing such a good job as Adrian's agent,' he said. 'I remember going up to Cartmel for one ride over the Bank Holiday and Adrian had six that were all fancied. In a way I was playing second fiddle to him already then, so what's happened wasn't impossible in my eyes.'

Locked together now, the two men were also in combat last year as they chased the job as stable jockey to Pipe. Dunwoody took it, as much to derail Maguire as to join racing's most prolific source of winners. 'If Adrian had gone to Martin I could probably have waved goodbye to the championship forever,' he said. 'Even if Martin had a bad season, Adrian has such a lot of outside contacts I'd never have had a chance of catching him.'

Dunwoody has already shuffled the troops in an effort to get more rides and Parsons has replaced Robert Kington as his agent. As well as wresting rides from the nation's trainers for his man, it will be Parsons' job to get Dunwoody's name back on newsprint.

Maguire has commanded most of the weighing-room publicity this season, not least after the King George VI Chase at Kempton, where Nicholson said he was the best jockey he had ever seen. This tickled Dunwoody. 'He used to say that about me and Scu (Peter Scudamore) before me,' he said. 'The Duke has been responsible for a lot of my good publicity over the past five or six seasons.'

There are two possible conclusions to be drawn here. Either Nicholson has been astoundingly fortunate and has actually employed successively the best men in the business, or he enjoys the notion of telling everyone, including potential owners, that his horses have the top man available to guide them.

Scudamore himself sees the present position at racing's summit as part of a recurring cycle. 'By the very nature of the sport it's very difficult to stay where Adrian is now for very long,' he said last week. 'Everyone who has a horse at the moment thinks he is the answer to their prayers, but in fact it's the horses that are the answers to Adrian's prayers. When people see he can be beaten on them the same as anyone else, another new person will have to come along.

'Francome did it, Jonjo did it, I did it and Richard did it, and that's how you get to the top.'

Scudamore is not keen to take sides on the superiority debate, but would not go against Dunwoody. 'They're both outstanding jockeys and while I'm not going to say Richard is better, to say Adrian is better would be total stupidity,' he said. 'If you watch the Nicholson horses, some of the don't jump as well for Mr Maguire as they did for Richard.

'This experience will do Richard good and make him harder to beat because he's fighting harder than ever now. When you look at Francome, Jonjo and Dunwoody, there's obvious ability but above that there's braveness and determination. Richard is a bloody tough man.'

Dunwoody is actually tough on no one more than himself, and self- analysis routinely begins the moment his fingers, which are more pudgy than those of most jockeys, characteristically toss his goggles behind his neck at the end of a race. 'If we've had a bad day, if I feel I've given one my best ride and made a mistake, I can be hard on myself,' he said. 'Possibly it's not the right thing to do, but that's the way I've always been.'

If there is ambivalence about this attitude, there is no doubting Dunwoody's evaluation of his thoughts while vying with Scudamore in last season's championship. He knows he got it wrong. 'Last year I spent the whole of the season worrying about what Scu was up to - where he was going, how many horses Martin was running and how many winners he was going to have - and that was bad psychology,' he said. 'You shouldn't be worrying about what your opponent is doing, you should be concentrating about your own game, and if I wondered about what Adrian was doing all the time this season it wouldn't do me any good.'

As Dunwoody's fortunes spluttered, the bloodhounds went in pursuit. The word was he was falling too often (even though he went a personal record of 140 rides without a tumble earlier this season); he was getting beaten on odds-on favourites (a statistic closely tied with the illness that beset Pipe's yard); and that he could not ride front-runners.

Dunwoody acknowledges only the last theory, and even then with reservations. 'There have been occasions this season when I've gone too quick, but on the whole I think I've got it right and I believe the front is the place to be.'

If there has been a problem this year for Dunwoody, it has been his own personality. You do not need to see in his lounge the various monitors and handsets that keep him in touch with every form of televised racing or visit the sweaty prison of the sauna, in which he spends more than an hour most evenings, to recognise this is a thorough and driven man. But, at times this winter, these traits have undermined him.

'If you're under pressure there is a temptation to try too hard and maybe there was a stage earlier this season when I was doing that and making mistakes,' he said. 'You can't give a horse too much of a ride because you end up forcing them and not giving them a blow when they need one. You certainly don't ride any more winners that way.

'If you're riding with confidence, on the other hand, you let the race come to you, remain relaxed and let it just flow naturally. I feel I'm back to that now.'

The currents of the last week also suggest Dunwoody is back in the title race and a gap which had stretched to the mid-40s is now reduced to 27, partly through a double at Folkestone on Tuesday, when he celebrated his 30th birthday. On the same card, Maguire was banned for four days for careless riding, and with another suspension brewing for overuse of the whip, he may soon be feeling breath on his neck.

Whether he makes it or not, Dunwoody will make sure there is nothing left in his well at season's end. 'If you've got a chance to be champion jockey you've got to take it and I'll be going all out,' he said. 'I'm not going to get to the end of my riding career and say maybe I could have been champion jockey in 1993-94 if I'd just tried that little bit harder.'

(Photograph omitted)