Racing: Dunwoody signals his resolution: Adrian Maguire's lead in the title race is cut to three as the reigning champion rides a double

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The Independent Online
WITH THE leading horses wrapped in cushions and waiting for Cheltenham, it was jockeys who held the attention again yesterday, by way of achievement (Richard Dunwoody), resilience (Mick Fitzgerald) and possible retirement (Geoff Baxter).

Dunwoody, whose impetuous barging match with Adrian Maguire incurred a 14- day suspension on Tuesday, rode a double at Warwick while Maguire was drawing a blank at Ludlow. The champion is now just three winners behind Maguire in the jockeys' championship, and if his current rate of progress continues will take the lead before the ban begins on 10 March.

The belief that Dunwoody's suspension has effectively handed the title to Maguire clearly depends on whether the champion is still committed to its defence. The evidence yesterday was that he is. After completing his double, on Roc De Prince, Dunwoody travelled on to Ludlow to ride in the last, but could finish only second on the odds-on chance Cyborgo.

That hint of determination was not lost on William Hill, who cut Dunwoody to 13-8 for the championship from 7-4. Maguire eased to 4-9 from 2-5, and David Hood, the firm's spokesman, admitted that they had probably over-reacted to the suspension. 'Three days of the ban cover the Cheltenham Festival and it's by no means certain that Adrian will ride many winners there. It's certainly conceivable that if Richard is about eight or 10 behind on his return, he could pull that back with around seven or eight weeks of the season remaining.'

No less determined than Dunwoody is Mick Fitzgerald, who broke his nose in a fall at Fontwell on Wednesday, but expects to be riding again by Monday at the latest. 'I had an operation to straighten my nose out and put some little bits back together,' he said yesterday, 'and I woke up this morning feeling fine. I'm bashed about a bit, but it's only bruising.'

Fitzgerald's swift recovery may owe something to the prospect of several excellent rides at the Cheltenham Festival, now just 11 days' away. The rider's growing reputation has ensured that this year, for the first time, he has bookings to match his talents, including Current Express (Arkle Trophy), Bibendum (Mildmay of Flete) and Billy Bathgate (Grand Annual Chase).

The most significant engagement of all, though, may be yet to come. In Dunwoody's enforced absence, Remittance Man is a favourite without a jockey in the Queen Mother Champion Chase. As stable jockey to Nick Henderson, the gelding's trainer, Fitzgerald is a serious candidate to take up the reins.

It is an assignment which could be the making of an aspiring jockey, but Fitzgerald, who lost his claim only last season, accepts that more experienced riders will also be considered. 'At the end of the day he's favourite for the Queen Mother, and Mr Henderson will speak to the owners and make a decision.'

Fitness has proved much more elusive for Geoff Baxter, the veteran Flat jockey, who broke his pelvis is three places on 1 April last year while riding work. 'I don't seem to be getting anywhere,' he said yesterday. 'The problem is a nerve near a disc in the spine. It keeps working into a muscle that produces a feeling like a dead leg.

'The longer this goes on, the less chance there is to come back. And even if I do make it, I will have been away for so long that there may not be anything for me to come back to.'

Double Silk, the Grand National favourite, won the hunter chase at Warwick yesterday in a canter and remains 8-1 for Aintree with all the major bookmakers. In the hunters' race at Ludlow, though, there was a reminder for his backers that favouritism means little at Liverpool. Bonanza Boy was beaten when market leader for the 1991 National. Now a 13-year-old, his 5- length success yesterday was his first victory since.

The sale of United Racecourses (Sandown, Kempton and Epsom) by the Levy Board has been deferred until 22 March. The committee charged with deciding between three rival bids for the tracks met yesterday but decided that aspects of all three bids required clarification.

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