Top pilot still a dare-devil

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Richard Dunwoody, they said, had started saving himself for the big occasion. Worn down by wasting and several years chasing the jockeys' championship, his spirit for jump racing's smaller offerings had evaporated.

This theory was detonated at the weekend when Dunwoody twice muddied his breeches in novice chases just three days before the apex of the year, the Cheltenham Festival.

You would have thought Dunwoody would have been taking it easy. But that is not to know the Ulsterman, who goes into a competitive auto-pilot when he steps on to a racecourse. Thus when Chepstow's last fence presented itself to him on Saturday at the end of a slow-run race he swept up through the gears on Sister Stephanie. Her chassis failed to come down.

A helicopter journey with fellow riders Tony McCoy and David Bridgwater later, he was again propelled into the turf, this time by Spanish Light at Sandown.

He adopted the stargazer's position for a while, a supine figure as he collected himself. "I've felt better," he said yesterday. "The second fall shook me up a little bit."

Not for a moment had Dunwoody thought to throttle back and ponder the promise of Prestbury Park. He is 4-6 favourite to win the Ritz Club Charity Trophy for the meeting's leading jockey with such as Alderbrook, Sound Man and One Man in his book, and some believe he will break the Festival record of five wins shared jointly by Fred Winter and Jamie Osborne.

"You can't take that defensive attitude," he said. "If you'd taken that approach I wouldn't have ridden for the last two weeks. You've got to keep your eye in. I don't think either of those horses have been on the floor before. It was just unfortunate and I got away with it.

"You know, it could happen in the first race at the Festival. A couple of years ago I had probably my worst fall of the season on Dreamer's Delight [in the 1993 Supreme Novices' Hurdle won by Montelado]."

After that crashing appointment with the ground Dunwoody dusted himself down to finish second on Wonder Man in the following race and, later in the meeting, captured the County Hurdle on Thumbs Up (which remains his last winner at the Festival).

The going is expected to be good for the first day of the meeting tomorrow, but weather reports suggest there will be a gradual deterioration to soft ground by Thursday and the Gold Cup. Some consider this will inconvenience the Blue Riband favourite, One Man, but the pessimists do not include the grey's trainer, Gordon Richards.

"A lot of people have said he would be disadvantaged it it was soft - they seem to know more than me," Richards said yesterday. "One Man is top of the pops now. He's been out in the field this morning and I'm very happy with him.''

The short-priced favourite will be among the smallest Gold Cup field for at least four years. Only 14 horses have accepted and, with doubts about several of those, there may be a single-figure pack setting out for chasing's crown.

The opening day may, after all, feature Martin Pipe's freewheeling mare, Draborgie. The Arkle Chase contestant pulled up stiff on Friday morning, but has made significant improvement over the weekend. "It's still early days - we don't have to decide until tomorrow morning - but we are quite hopeful," the trainer said. "She will only be taking part if I am satisfied she is 100 per cent over the setback. So if she's there she will do herself justice."

Amancio's prospects of tackling the County Hurdle on Thursday are in the balance despite the pounds 50,000 bonus he will collect if he can follow up his success in the Imperial Cup at Sandown with victory in the Festival's final event.

Guy Harwood, Amancio's trainer, said yesterday: "We'll wait until Wednesday to decide. It's tremendously difficult to win any race at Cheltenham and the horse would have to be in top shape to take his chance."