Dancer Dunwoody: An all-action hero

Five years ago, writer Nick Townsend memorably described ex-jockey Richard Dunwoody, who spent his teenage years in Suffolk, as 'part Michael Palin, part Indiana Jones, with just a dash of Lawrence of Arabia thrown in'.

Steven Russell

Five years ago, writer Nick Townsend memorably described ex-jockey Richard Dunwoody, who spent his teenage years in Suffolk, as 'part Michael Palin, part Indiana Jones, with just a dash of Lawrence of Arabia thrown in'. Not much seems to have changed, as Steven Russell discovered

WHEN the makers of Action Man next consider changing the appearance of their dolls, they could do worse than find inspiration in former Champion Jockey Richard Dunwoody. No-one can quibble with his achievements. As a horseman he won two Grand Nationals, the King George VI Chase four times, and the Cheltenham Gold Cup. In all, he rode a record-breaking 1,699 British winners. But it's his exploits since injury forced him out of the saddle a decade ago that really mark him out as a man of derring-do. Partly in an effort to find something to replace the adrenaline buzz racing once gave him, he's tackled challenges that would floor a lesser mortal. These include a 350-mile cross-country ski-ing race to the magnetic North Pole and a 48-day, 673-mile trek to the South Pole. Just to make sure life's not dull, he's also led riding holidays to some of the world's troublespots. Then there was his return this year to Newmarket, the Suffolk town where he spent most of his teenage years. No holiday, it involved walking the same mile once an hour, for 1,000 hours, night and day. It raised more than �100,000 for charity. Oh, and then he went to Mongolia, returning to Britain just in time to take his place as a celebrity mover in Strictly Come Dancing. It's tiring just looking at his schedule.

Somewhere along the line the ex-National Hunt jockey also managed to produce a book: a follow-on from his autobiography Obsessed, published not long after that neck injury triggered premature retirement. Method In My Madness is no lukewarm and shallow account to rake in a few extra pounds now that he can't ride winners; instead, it's a self-aware and unflinching look inside himself, after nearly 10 years in Civvy Street - what's he's done, why he's done it, and how the career he so relished has shaped life afterwards. The three-times Champion Jockey also takes a look at the state of racing today.

Some of his opinions have caused a bit of a stir, he grins in acknowledgement. He's taken some flack in the trade press for his views on Richard Johnson, suggesting the rider must break with agent Dave Roberts to stand a chance of winning the annual jockeys' championship. Johnson has been runner-up 11 times.

Gold Cup-winning jockey Andrew Thornton wasn't impressed, claiming Dunwoody was simply “trying to be controversial to sell his book, and he should stick to dancing".

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The author's unmoved. “As far as I'm concerned, I stand by that. A top jockey should have an agent to sell him and him alone. To me, it's a black and white case,” he says. His point is that Dave Roberts has dozens of riders on his books and can thus influence where his clients ride, what kind of mounts they get, and who they compete against.

Ensconced in a quiet corner of a London branch of Starbucks, away from the piped music and the sing-song voices of children chirpy at nine o'clock in the morning, Richard Dunwoody says the book has been a chance to address a few points. Over the past few years, for instance, he's been taken to task by sections of the racing press for doing “mad things” - the challenges he's tackled.

“I got criticism through the summer for doing the charity walk. Why?! If Ian Botham does a walk, and he's done 12 of them, he doesn't get criticism for them - for trying to raise money for charity. I found it strange.”

Are parts of the industry stuck in the dark ages, in places, then?

“Well, that's what we try to say in that chapter (called Racing People), and again I totally stand by all of that.” He mentions the current Racing for Change initiative designed to create a better future for the sport, and a study conducted in the late 1990s.

“Possibly some racing people aren't that welcoming, and refer to others as 'outsiders'. To take the sport forward, we need sports fans to be coming racing. At the moment, racing is certainly struggling. The Derby's being taken off the protected list (well, possibly, if recommendations are adopted), there's very little jump racing now on the BBC. Racing's really got to stand up and take a look at that; that's really going to affect the popularity of the sport.”

He accepts change is a long process, but he's happy to be asking a few key - and provocative - questions. Like the jockeys' championship. Should it be decided upon prize money or the number of winners?

“If you're going to market the sport properly, it seems ridiculous the owners' championship and the trainers' championship are on prize money and the jockeys' is on winners. I feel it's something that could be looked at in time.”

He pauses a moment, then laughs. “Hey, what the heck!”

Most of the book is about himself, though - specifically, what's going on inside his head. Just as Obsessed dissected events such as his untidy divorce from then-wife Carol, so Richard doesn't hold back in discussing his feelings, motivations and the consequences of his actions and personality.

He talks about not just missing racing but why he misses it. “Riding racehorses was more than my job. It was my life. Like oxygen, I needed it to breathe, to survive. And it was taken away from me prematurely.”

There was, of course, a price - “the professional highs had caused extreme personal lows, both for me and for those close to me; my marriage was destroyed by a storm of tormented moments provoked by my dedication to winning at all costs”.

He talks about how his self-esteem was almost totally bound up with being a jockey. Is that a double-edged sword? - in that to be a champion, you have to be ruthlessly single-mindedness and live, breathe and eat racing. Trouble is, it can evaporate once that final mount is unsaddled.

“I think anyone in the role of a professional sportsman gets their self-esteem from their job. And then, suddenly, you're not doing it any more. It's not just people at the top, it's jockeys all the way down - and it can be people in an office.

“A lot of people in their 60s lose a lot of self-esteem simply through retiring, you know. I've had friends of mine who retired from riding who probably had (only) 15 winners and were very stressed at the end of their career. One friend had alopecia and lost all his hair as soon as he retired.

“It changes people's lives and a lot of them aren't prepared for it. Take footballers. The obvious case is Gaza and how he just hasn't been able to adapt to life without kicking a ball.”

As far as he's concerned, has the yearning for that adrenaline rush racing gave him - along with the drive and desire to compete - diminished over the 10 years since retirement?

“Yeah, I would say it has. I'd like to think I'm a lot more laid back than I was years ago. But it's great, these challenges that have presented themselves.” And acted as something of a substitute. “It's been fantastic, for example, to witness Antarctica.”

He writes about the fear of failure pushing him on, then and now. Presumably that comes from having grown up steeped in the racing ethos, where winning is everything?

“Yeah. It seems some sportsmen don't have a fear of failure - they say it's negative to have a fear of failure. For me, it was a driver. I talk about it during the time in the South Pole. It was certainly with me from about halfway, and with me every day. It was just like 'S---, are we going to manage this?' I had a huge fear of failure down there. So much could go wrong, especially as you're getting tired.”

December 14 is on the horizon, the anniversary of the day in 1999 when he officially announced his departure from National Hunt racing. It's not weighing on his mind, though.

“I don't think it will figure too much. No, I don't. Not that much.” It will, he agrees, simply be “nearly another day”. You move on. You have to move on.”

His earlier autobiography was perhaps written too soon after that enforced retirement, when his feelings about the sport at large were still raw. This tome was put together with the benefit of greater distance and reflection, and he's pleased about that.

“In the last book, I said things that I don't regret, but the one thing you could say about Obsessed was that it was dark. I loved racing; the last five years of my career were absolutely fantastic - and I don't think that came through strongly enough in the book, you know. This is a way of saying 'I had a great career, I was very lucky, rode some great horses,' and hopefully that comes through.”

If he were starting out again, but with the benefit of the knowledge now at his fingertips, it's professionalism and top-notch preparation he'd strive for: putting together a backroom team to have the machine running smoothly.

“We were without agents then, and obviously now Tony McCoy's got an agent, he's got Gee Armytage, for example, who runs his life - and he's totally focused on getting himself in as good a shape as he possibly can and then riding winners. If I was starting again, that's what I would be trying to do.”

Aspiring jockeys now have access to specialists such as psychologists and personal trainers. “In those days, if we had a cold spell and there was no racing for a week, we'd play the odd game of squash and think it would keep us fit. How things have changed! Changed massively. It's so you can focus totally on your racing.”

In a way, though, is it not a shame that greater “professionalism” has squeezed some of the colour and romance out of sport - not just horse-racing but other pursuits?

“It's certainly changed. You look at the jockeys in the '60s and '70s. They'd turn up for the races and all go to the pub on the way home. If they were going down to Folkestone or some of the south coast race meetings, they'd go to the Jermyn Street baths on the way down, and have dinner in London that night. That seems a totally different world to what goes on 40 years later.”

I'm surprised that at the end of the book, where he talks about some of the aspects he's most proud of, he cites things like being one of the first jump jockeys to employ an agent and to publicly endorse the use of a sports psychologist, and to be the first jump jockey to have sponsors' logos on his riding gear. I thought he'd wax more about some of the great horses he's ridden and the cups he's claimed.

“Obviously riding Desert Orchid and Miinnehoma in the National were great days and I can't get away from that, but if I've helped a jockey's lot in some way, then I think that's great.

“I was the first to have Saab on my breeches and worked hard to bring in sponsorship for jockeys. We battled a long time against owners to get rid of the veto (which allowed owners to say “no” to sponsors' logos) and all that sort of stuff.”

The lowest moment of the past decade, he says, has been retirement itself. “I've still got both parents, although dad's pretty ill. I've been pretty luck on that score. Overall, in the last seven or eight years, there haven't been many low moments at all. I've been very, very lucky.”

Content? “Yes. I suppose I am. I suppose you're always looking to see what there is. I love travel, so there are always places to go. I haven't got a wife and kids, so that might be another way to go! I think I have a great life.”

Method In My Madness: 10 Years Out Of The Saddle is published by Thomas Brightman Limited at �18.99

RICHARD Dunwoody was back in Newmarket in December for a book-signing session at the National Horseracing Museum. After his 1,000 Mile Challenge there in the summer, which saw him walk the same mile every hour during 1,000 consecutive hours, you'd have thought he would be sick of the racing town on the Suffolk-Cambridgeshire borders.

“Possibly that little stretch on the Bury Road!” he allows, wryly.

It was at 2.20pm on Friday, July 10 that he finished his endurance test, having walked day and night for 42 days. It raised more than �100,000 for four charities - Racing Welfare, the Alzheimer's Society, Sparks and Spinal Research - as well as promoting the health benefits of walking.

It was surprising to read how little physical and mental a mark the walk left on him. Richard lost only two or three pounds in weight, for instance. His mega-walk mirrored one in 1809 by Captain Robert Barclay Allardice, who did it for a 1,000-guinea bet and lost three stone in the process.

“I felt worse halfway through it than I did towards the end,” says the ex-jockey, who averaged 15 minutes and 21 seconds a mile and had his fastest timed at 12 minutes and 19 seconds.

“I got more into a rhythm and I had really good physios, a great support team, and nutrition and stuff like that. But I was very aware that we had to take on board the right amount of calories not to be losing weight. And every day we were monitoring weight and everything else.

“I was surprised how quickly I was able to adapt to normal life again.”

Mind you, “normal” in Dunwoody World would be extraordinary for most of us. Three weeks after his Newmarket trial of stamina he few to Mongolia, to lead a riding holiday for the Wild Frontier company! And then it was Strictly Come Dancing.

Richard moved to Newmarket in the spring of 1976, when he was 12, riding out for trainer Paul Kelleway. He stayed until 1981, when he moved to Oxfordshire after leaving school - joining Tim Forster's yard. Newmarket thus has a resonance for him.

"Newmarket and the surrounding community supported me throughout my 1,000-mile challenge earlier in the year and the town means a huge amount to me,” he says.

“I've got a lot of fans up there. Mind you, it's changed a fair bit over the years. There seem to be more horses, more trainers.”

He's had an association in the past with The British Racing School at Newmarket, which trains people employed in the racing industry. Young jockeys such as Harry Skelton and Aidan Coleman are among the riders who have had some coaching from the former champion.

Richard's helped trainees with technical advice - “Just to watch them school over hurdles; to try to give them on or two things to take away. If they fall into bad habits - if they hold on to a horse too short or they're too loose in the saddle - then to tell them to go away and work on it.”

RICHARD Dunwoody might have been the second celebrity to be voted off the BBC's Strictly Come Dancing show a couple of months ago, but it's not yet time for him to hang up his dancing shoes. He'll be taking part in the last show of the series, next month, and will have a routine to do. He's been having some lessons in preparation. “It's really good exercise,” he says of dancing. “It's fun - a great form of training.”

Most of his challenges have been tough, but he's overcome them. (He reminds me of the team race to the magnetic North Pole, during which he dislocated his shoulder and, paralysed by pain, had to have it forced back into place out on the ice. Hardly plain sailing, but they pressed on and came second.) Was it a blow to his pride to be ejected from Strictly at such an early stage?

“It's a reality show and it's not something to get too worked up about. I did the best I could do in three weeks. It was an amazing experience and I wouldn't have swapped it for anything.

“I came literally off the Mongolian steppes into the studio. It would have been great to have had more experience. In three weeks, I think Lilia (Kopylova, his pro dance partner) did a fair job to get me to do two routines! I can't complain.”

Is there another big challenge on the horizon?

“Maybe in two years to do an expedition to the geographic North Pole. But I'm not sure; it's at a very early stage. It's a possibility.”

The Richard Dunwoody file

January, 1964: born Belfast,

Can remember wanting to be a jockey from the age of four

His father, George, rode and trained many winners in Ireland

His grandfather trained at Epsom

When the family moved to Newmarket, Richard rode-out for Paul Kelleway from the age of 12

After leaving school in 1981, he joined Tim Forster's yard in Oxfordshire

May, 1983: rode first winner as an amateur, at Cheltenham

Turned professional at start of 1984-85 season

1986: Won Grand National with West Tip

1988: Won Cheltenham Gold Cup on Charter Party

1993: Champion Jockey for first time

1994: Won Grand National with Miinnehoma

Won the King George VI Chase four times in the 1980s and 1990s, including twice on Desert Orchid

Took the Hennessey Gold Cup at Leopardstown on both Dorans Pride and Florida Pearl

Had about 700 falls in his career, but broke only two bones

Retired through ill health in 1999, aged 35

2003: Competed in Polar Race to magnetic North Pole

2007-2008: 48-day, 673-mile, trek to South Pole with U.S. explorer Doug Stoup

Route followed one previously attempted by Ernest Shackleton

Theirs was the first successful completion of that route on foot, as well the first completed new route to the South Pole in 10 years

Lives: Fulham, London

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