OF all the great horses ridden to victory by Richard Dunwoody, it speaks volumes that few rounds of jumping were as exhilarating as One Man’s breathtaking brilliance at Wetherby 20 years ago.
A three-time champion jockey who won the Grand National twice, and also a Cheltenham Gold Cup in a mercurial career cut short by injury, this gallant grey still has a very special place in the retired rider’s affections.
In particular, the horse’s successful defence of the prestigious Charlie Hall Chase – Wetherby’s feature race of the year – compares favourably with his many winning rides on Desert Orchid, another grey who lit up winter so thrillingly.
As the horse renewed its rivalry with the redoubtable Barton Bank, ridden by Dunwoody’s then adversary Adrian Maguire, clear blue skies greeted the packed crowds who had flocked to the A1 track to watch the traditional first big race of winter.
They were not to be disappointed. Even though just four runners went to post for a race held in memory of Towton trainer Charlie Hall, One Man – running in the bright yellow silks of leading owner John Hales – stalked Barton Bank for a circuit and a half. Yet, after the field ran alongside the dual carriageway at the end of the course before turning for home, they were soon greeted by the yawning ditch in front of the fourth last fence.
One of the most feared obstacles in racing at the time, Maguire’s mount still held the marginal advantage as One Man pricked his ears as the formidable obstacle came into sight. “Travelling going well, it was probably better to go long than short,” Dunwoody told The Yorkshire Post.
Half a length down going into the wings of the fence, One Man’s flamboyance, as the crowd gasped, took him alongside his rival and into a slender lead going to the third last.
Another solid jump was required – and produced. “The fences at Wetherby used to take a lot of jumping and could be quite stiff,” said the rider.
The same at the second last as the most popular horse in training at the time surged into the lead. “Great to be riding the favourite in a race like that, but you’ve got to treat it like a normal race and not do anything stupid,” explained Dunwoody.
Then the gallop to last as One Man’s suspect stamina began to err while the brave Barton Bank rallied.
“It’s the first race of the season. They don’t want to have too hard a race,” said the jockey. “If they do, it can have an impact later on the season.”
To the relief of the crowd, One Man – trained in Cumbria by Gordon W Richards ,whose middle initial distinguished himself from the legendary Flat jockey of the same name – clung on amid rousing cheers.
Yet, having twice failed to see out the Cheltenham Gold Cup’s stamina sapping three-and-a-quarter-mile trip, the manner of this win effectively ruled out a third tilt. Instead, One Man won the two-mile Queen Mother Champion Chase in a canter under third-choice jockey Brian Harding – Dunwoody was committed to Irish raider Klarion Davis and Tony Dobbin was injured on the National Hunt Festival’s opening day – on a tide of public emotion.
Poignantly, and prophetically, ill health meant it was the only race that the horse’s cancer-stricken trainer missed, but Richards was present at Aintree the following month when his champion suffered a fatal fall that left the whole of racing heartbroken and united in grief.
Of all the mementoes and trophies won by horses owned by the aforementioned Hales, pride of place is the letter that he received from the Queen Mother after the tragic fall.
“The Charlie Hall Chase, I remember it like yesterday. Still watch it,” said Hales, whose Neptune Collonges won the 2012 Grand National. “You can never take memories away. The one plus of racing. The good days, you remember forever.”
Nicky Richards, whose late father trained One Man before succumbing to cancer in September, 1998, concurs. “Three miles – that was the story with One Man, wasn’t it? He was a tremendous horse. He mixed it with the best around and was just a very high-class horse. They are not easy to find, I’ll tell you. Father absolutely loved the horse. We had a few good ones, mind, but he was special.”
Originally trained by Arthur Stephenson, the County Durham trainer’s death prompted a dispersal sale in 1993 which saw Hales purchase One Man for 68,000 guineas, a shrewd buy when his new acquisition won his first five starts over fences, including a contest at Wetherby’s Christmas meeting that year. The gelding would win 20 out of 35 races contested, accruing £450,000 in prize money.
Twelve months later, One Man, by then a winner of Newbury’s Hennessy Gold Cup, unseated his rider in the Rowland Meyrick Chase at the West Yorkshire track.
Yet victory in the King George VI Chase at Sandown in early 1996 – Kempton’s traditional Boxing Day meeting had been abandoned – confirmed the grey’s status as a worthy Cheltenham Gold Cup favourite and the one to beat.
Looking back, Dunwoody wonders whether the horse’s exertions up Sandown’s pulsating final hill in the King George took their toll and explained why this leg-weary horse faltered in the 1996 and 1997 Gold Cups won by Imperial Call and Mr Mulligan, respectively.
“Maybe he didn’t quite have the flamboyance of Desert Orchid but he had a lot scope when he was travelling well,” ventured Dunwoody. “When he was on song and he was travelling, he was a very, very good jumper.
“In the 1996 Gold Cup, I have rarely felt so confident about winning a race but he went from hero to zero in two strides. In 1997, I was even more confident with two to jump that we would wear down AP McCoy on Mr Mulligan. He carried me a hundred yards further. It was not enough.”
When Dunwoody pulled up One Man at Aintree weeks after the 1997 Gold Cup disappointment, the horse was suffering from a broken blood vessel and he wonders if it was “the manifestation” of a long-standing problem that meant the warrior could not see out steeplechasing’s ultimate three-and-a-quarter miles.
But, having also ridden the great Desert Orchid, Dunwoody knows that One Man would have been a match for ‘Dessie’. He said: “One Man was a bit more compact and very athletic. He could get in close or stand off whereas Dessie was more flamboyant. Dessie would come up out of your hands more often and would keep coming up for you if you kept firing him in.”
Yet, as he adds, very few horses would have beaten One Man at Wetherby in November, 1997 when the grey winged the fourth last and set up a pulsating finish.
Flying high for champions challenge
RICHARD DUNWOODY has rarely ridden since injury forced him to retire in 1999. He has become a global explorer, acclaimed photographer who likes to hang out of aeroplanes while flying over Northumbria and charity fund-raiser.
The winner of 1,699 races, and regarded as the consummate horseman, he plans to return to the saddle for a final hurrah at London’s Olympia Horse Show in December.
Together with Sir AP McCoy, Peter Scudamore, John Francome and Ireland’s multiple champion, they will take on a Flat team headed by Frankie Dettori in the Markel Champions Challenge. Though the jumping legends – who won a combined 47 titles in total – are taking the competition very seriously, and took part in a schooling session over show-jumping obstacles last week, they are raising money for the Injured Jockeys’ Fund.
“I very rarely ride now,” said Dunwoody, whose recent expedition saw him trek 2,000 miles across Japan to raise money for Sarcoma UK cancer charity after his nephew George, now on the road to recovery, was struck down with the illness.
“Last year, I played a game of polo and couldn’t walk for a week! AP roped us all in and there will be plenty of competitiveness with these lads, don’t you worry.”