Life has been as good to Richard Dunwoody since retiring from the saddle as it was in it.
He appeared in Strictly Come Dancing seven years ago, having followed in the footsteps of Ernest Shackleton the year before by completing a 48-day trek to the South Pole. An acclaimed photographer, he moonlights as a motivational speaker and holds other business interests besides.
Yet he worries about his future.
Champion jockey three times in the UK, the Belfast man had 1,800 winners in Britain and Ireland by the time he retired in 1999 and he was unseated once for every three of them. Inevitably some would result in concussions.
He suffered no more than eight, by his own estimation. Really bad ones, that is. A bad one was being knocked out cold. Or when part of his memory was wiped, like files from a floppy disc. The first was in Huntingdon in 1985 when he parted company with a horse called Silent Tango. The worst of them was Hereford in June 1995. He was riding a badly-named beast called James Pigg for Martin Pipe when he came down at the 11th. Or so he was told. He spoke to the doctor and to his trainer and made for the weighing room.
Dunwoody didn’t smile much in his days as Pipe’s retained rider. Neither did Peter Scudamore or AP McCoy when they held the job, so his fellow jockeys knew he wasn’t fully right when he sat down with a beaming grin.
He was familiar enough with the haze and confusion inside his head to know what to do next so he picked up the nearest copy of The Sporting Life to remember what he had just ridden and what his next mount would be. And that’s when the fog really descended.
“I am all over the front page. Huge headlines. ‘Dunwoody Leaves Pipe’. I am astounded because I have been riding for Martin for two years. As far as I remember, we were getting on fine. It was down to Martin that I was champion jockey for those two seasons.
“He was the best trainer in the world and why in hell was I leaving? Absolutely incredible. So I read all the way through the article and at the bottom: ‘Dunwoody has also divorced from his wife this year’. Again, hadn’t had a clue. Lost a complete year of my life.” It wasn’t until he began the drive home that normal service began to resume and he remembered that he’d been seeing a girlfriend for six months as well. All this is told with a touch of humour, but his reasons for sharing it yesterday are no laughing matter.
Concussion in sport has never been more topical as familiarity with, and knowledge of, the problem, its causes and its affects grow. Rugby and NFL have been spotlighted, but there is no mainstream sport where it is more prevalent than horse racing. National Hunt racing in particular.
Dunwoody’s family tree reveals how deeply the roots of the issue go. His grandfather Dick Thrale was a professional jockey who fractured a skull at Lingfield in 1930 and only emerged from a coma three weeks later. His father George, an amateur, suffered the same injury in 1950 and it deprived him of a ride in that year’s Grand National.
Both men suffered from dementia towards the end of their lives and, though Dunwoody did add the rider that his father was in his ‘90s when he died, it is a sporting and medical history that has concentrated his own mind as to what his future mental health could be. It is why Dunwoody was in Croke Park yesterday to help with the Irish launch of the International Concussion Head Injury Research Foundation (ICHIRF), which is aiming to examine the long-term neurological effects of impact sports on retired athletes.
There has long been an accepted association between concussions and degenerative mental diseases, but proving one causes the other is something else. The hope is that medical research and analysis can clarify what is happening in this greyest of areas. “It may show we are no more susceptible to ill effects from various concussions,” said Dunwoody, “but if I am to be affected by Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), I’d rather know now than not.”
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