When Richard Dunwoody used to sit at home rewinding his races that he’d recorded on his VCR, he wasn’t looking at his triumphs. The races he rewound “20, 30, 50 times” were the defeats. He was trying to eradicate mistakes and if he felt there was an error, he would keep going back over the tapes, looking at those mistakes, trying to find an edge while he was haunted by the losses.
Few sportspeople embodied the idea that “the agony of the devoured animal is always far greater than the pleasure of the devourer” more perfectly than Dunwoody during his years as a champion jockey. The agony was always there, driving him on.
“When I used to watch the videos 50 times, they weren’t the ones that won, they were the ones that I got beat on. If I got beat a short head, or I fell off in a top race – fortunately, it didn’t happen too many times in the big races – but yeah, they probably hurt as much as anything else looking back,” he says.
When he was engaged in battle with fellow jockey Adrian Maguire, he found the obsession overwhelming. He was consumed by the idea of the advantages his opponent could be getting over him, the horses he was riding, the winners he might be having.
He was mocked by the press in terms that would be considered appalling today. The Sun called him ‘Richard Dunmaddy’. But it wasn’t for his obsession, it was for how he tried to manage it. He became one of the first jockeys to engage a sports psychologist and while the relentless drive was accepted no matter what damage it caused, the attempt to understand it was ridiculed.
When I was chasing the championship, you got off one horse, ‘Where’s my next winner?’ That’s all you could think about.
It was the former that led his wife Carol to define their marriage by the sound of videotapes being rewound.
“I always remember Carol what she said, the main thing she remembered about the marriage was the sound of the rewind button on the old VHS.”
There was logic to his intensity. “If I’d made a mistake, I had to go through it 20 times, 30 times, 50 times to see what I should have done, to see if I could have done anything differently.”
Did it help, I wonder, and Dunwoody answers dead pan, “you probably take it too far in the end.”
You probably do. He once gave himself a black eye as he took out his frustration at a defeat on himself, one of those moments when he might have taken it too far.
“There were some huge ups and downs through the career,” Dunwoody says now. “I can look back and say, ‘Why did you act like that? You fool’. But that’s the way it was. It’s the way it had to be at the time. To be champion jockey those three years. For me, I couldn’t have done it any other way. I had to push myself to the limit through those seasons otherwise I wouldn’t have achieved that goal. So in that respect, I have no regrets to have got where I got. But yeah the marriage broke down and other things happened but that’s life as well.”
He doesn’t say this dismissively but with an acknowledgment that life moves on. “You regret all that that has gone on, you know? The breakdown of the marriage with Carol and all of that, but it’s happened. Through it, she’s ended up with a great life. Great family, as well. So, you know, things, things move on and they generally moved on for the best.”
The terms of engagement during the intense years were simple. When Dunwoody engaged a sports psychologist, he wasn’t looking for him to provide a better work-life balance. He wanted to find a way of winning more efficiently.
“It was to try and find an advantage over Adrian. The main thing with any coach, you know what you should be doing but you can’t do it and you need someone else to tell you. Peter’s message was very, very simple: control the controllable. I was too worried about what Adrian was doing, where he was going, what horses he was riding, and everything else. Watching him in races, wasn’t worrying about my own game, my own horses and it was a very simple thing, but it needed drilling into me nearly every time I met Peter.”
It wasn’t the only way he sought an advantage. When he was Martin Pipe’s jockey, he hoped his progressive training methods could also help him as a jockey.
“It was an advantage I was trying at the time also through Martin Pipe. He’d a laboratory down in Somerset, where he trains, and I was hoping to get my bloods tested to see if I could get advantage there to make sure they were in reasonable conditional all the time. That didn’t work. Martin for some reason didn’t want me near the lab. But you know, those sorts of things. It was trying to get those little advantages at the time and certainly that year again against Adrian it came down to the final day and I was lucky. I ended up two or three in front of him.”
Within a few years, he had a slightly different perspective, helped by his friend, Ultan Guilfoyle who gave him some advice.
“Put the weight up a few pounds, stop sitting in the sauna all day long and trying to send yourself crazy there, try and get some sort of balance into your life,” Guilfoyle told him. “And it was really then that I decided to go freelance, ride in Ireland as well as England. And those last three, four seasons were when you look back at them, certainly the happiest four years of my life. It was just fantastic, riding great horses. And if I wanted to take a day off, I took a day off, you know, so we got off the treadmill a little bit.”
He enjoyed it more then. He tried to take pleasure in the devouring when he could. “I appreciated them a lot more from the time I went freelance and yeah, but up until that when I was chasing the championship, you got off one horse, ‘Where’s my next winner?’ That’s all you could think about. AP McCoy did that for 20 years, I only managed it for three.”
If the sport is more open to sports psychologists, it still pushes those involved to extremes. Few sports ask as much as relentlessly of its sportspeople as horse racing. The need to make weight and to ride winners remains.
“Day in, day out,” he says. “It’s not just the travel but also then looking after the weight. Boxers have to lose a lot of weight before some of the fights but sometimes you’d be going out on a Saturday night, putting on seven or eight pounds, and then having to take it all off for a Monday. Now they have racing every Sunday, you don’t even get that break now. So it is a very, very demanding lifestyle. I rode 900 or nearly 900 rides once but the top lads are up to those 800-900 rides quite regularly now I believe.”
There are other driving forces too. “Since the 70s and 80s racing is just so international now. Whether it’s with the Arabs coming into this sport, and prize money is now rocketing wherever you seem to go, whether it’s the new races in Saudi of the last few years. It’s much more of an international sport now than it was 50 years ago.”
With that are greater demands and an even greater desire to win.
When I ask him about Jim Bolger’s recent comments about doping, he references Medina Spirt, the Kentucky Derby winner, who failed a drugs test after the victory. “People are always going to try to take an advantage,” he says.
Dunwoody lives in Spain now, with his partner Olivia and his five-year-old daughter Millie. They spent the first months of lockdown in an apartment in Madrid. It was a culture shock for Dunwoody, as great perhaps as the end of his sporting career, that his life would now be lived in a small world having previously been lived everywhere.
“It was pretty tricky, actually. We were based then in the centre of Madrid, quite a small flat with a four year old daughter. And luckily, we had a little bit of outdoor space, I adore space, a bit of a terrace as well, “he says.
“I basically flew back through Rio, I was working down in Argentina photographing the Gaucho derby down there. And I got back to this ghost city of Madrid, it was incredible. Initially in Spain, it was a very, very hard lockdown through through March, all the way through April, I think it wasn’t really until the beginning, about the 10th of May, things started to open up. To be fair to Millie, God bless her, she was fantastic. I thought she’d go absolutely crazy in this small flat. But no, she kept herself occupied. And we kept ourselves occupied in it and we got through. Yeah, it was quite tough.”
They now live outside Madrid, close to La Pedriza National Park where Dunwoody’s need for open spaces can be satisfied.
“I didn’t choose very well as far as my business partners were concerned.”
At some stage soon, he will hope to travel again. If his life as a sportsman was defined by the need to win, his life since then has been an extraordinary separation from it. Some see in the extreme pursuits a similar desire to test himself and to find adrenaline but for somebody who grew up in racing, it has been notable too how he distanced himself from it.
“It happened through racing,” he says of his new life. He met Jonny Bealby who runs the company Wild Frontiers and started leading tours for them and for Ride Worldwide. He also talks to businesses and business leaders through talks with Navy Blue Sports.
“You see some retired jockeys heading to a race course and not really enjoying being there. I did punditry for three or four years with the BBC and enjoyed it while I was doing it, but it wasn’t really what I wanted to be doing. And my father trained and having been around trainers for 20 years, I certainly didn’t want to train. And I also never had in my mind to be an agent or a manager for owners as well. So I felt life is going to be a lot more fulfilling away from the racecourse after I retired.”
Looking back, it might make sense that he walked away. Why stay so close to something all consuming when it could never be the same?
His post-racing life was bumpy. There was punditry and the life lived by proxy. There was a sports marketing business that didn’t work out.
“If I look back now, I say to any sportsman, just don’t rush. In a way I didn’t know enough. I should have gone to business school or I should have spent more time preparing for that future rather than just rushing things. I didn’t choose very well as far as my business partners were concerned. And I probably regretted it a little bit a couple of years later when it all folded, but again, it was a lesson in life as well and you’ve got to take the positives from it.”
The life now is better. He laughs when people say he’s chasing an adrenaline rush as he recalls the 48 days taking Shackleton’s route to the South Pole where there was barely a whisper of any adrenaline. “48 of the most mind numbing days of my life. Putting one foot in front of another for about 14 hours a day and then clambering into a very cold tent,” he says of something he describes as the “hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life”.
When he talks to businesses, he tries to encapsulate the whole of his life from winning the Grand National on West Tip to controlling the controllable. He read an article last week about the US Open winner John Rahm and how his coach when he was a teenager told Rahm to go and do 400 putts one day. Rahm came back having done 800. Something in Dunwoody stirred when he read that, the recognition of the old drive, the determination that nothing would be left to chance. Every day of his school holidays, Dunwoody would be in yard of the trainer Paul Kellaway. “You couldn’t keep me away from the yard,” he says. “I just had to be on the back of a horse.”
So he saw himself in Rahm.
“That was the mentality of him age 13,14. I think if you’d ask AP he’d say the same. To have got to the top we had to go out there, we had to take a lot of falls, we had to day in day out just try and be on the top of your game. But you had to deal with the negatives, the bad situations as well as and try and make positives out of them.”
For someone whose life has been based on challenges and whose recent life has revolved around travel, Dunwoody is hoping to make some trips again this summer and autumn. But he has other projects now, including a five-year-old daughter who he has watched growing up during lockdown. He wouldn’t have missed that for anything but in an earlier life, he might have done.
“I do think about that. I don’t honestly think with the job as it was, riding, the travel, the pressure. I’m just really grateful that Millie came along, 15 years after I’d retired. And, yeah, it’s been great. The one thing about lockdown is that we haven’t be able to leave. So it’s been great spending time with her and watching her grow up and how she changes day to day. We’ve been really lucky in that way as a family. It’s been fantastic in some ways.”