How West Tip’s Grand National triumph changed the career of Richard Dunwoody
They are also in awe when he reveals that he won the world’s most famous horse race, at the age of 22, on West Tip in 1986 before landing the odds-on Miinnehoma eight years later.
West Tip’s win, Dunwoody tells The Yorkshire Post, changed his career. It put him on the racing map – literally – and paved the way for him to become one of National Hunt racing’s most celebrated riders.
What still troubles him, 35 years later, is that he, and West Tip, should have prevailed a year earlier in 1985 when they came to grief at Becher’s Brook with the racing seemingly at their mercy.
“He was a very intelligent horse. He looked after himself – and me,” says the 57-year-old racing legend who has finally settled in Spain with his family after spending much of the past two decades exploring the world and, more recently, pursuing his talent for photography.
“He could spot trouble a mile off and he was ideal for the course [Aintree] as he proved with all his runs after the fall. The first year, I was in the front and it was probably the only mistake he made round there in six years.
“In those days, there was quite a crowd around Becher’s; you have five big fences in a row and you’re then jumping towards the grandstand and all the noise. Maybe he just took his eye off it, and didn’t get high enough. In those days, the drop on the landing side was a lot steeper. A normal fence, however, he might have got away with it.”
‘The National that got away’ is a mishap that can break lesser jockeys. Yet, mercifully from Dunwoody’s perspective, there was no social media and he had shown enough horsemanship that his first National ride would also not be his last.
There were, he says, “tears in the eyes” as he made the long and lonely journey back to the weighing room by ambulance but the only injury was pride.
There was also a steadfast belief that Dunwoody and West Tip would make amends 12 months later. “We’ll come back next year and win,” the rider told reporters without hesitation.
There was another supreme irony that provided further motivation – the 1985 National had gone to Last Suspect in the Arkle colours of Anne, Duchess of Westminster, who denied Mick Easterby’s Mr Snugfit in the final strides.
Last Suspect was trained by the late Captain Tim Forster, Dunwoody’s then boss, and the Belfast-born jockey had to show magnanimity the following day when the National hero was welcomed home.
But Dunwoody had already made this vow to himself: “Next time we will not lead into Becher’s. Next time we will get it right.”
Yet the fact that West Tip would ultimately line up in six consecutive Nationals for owner Peter Luff and Worcestershire trainer Michael Oliver was a racing miracle worthy of the great race’s reputation.
On a foggy morning in 1982, Oliver’s string was waiting for the then jockey Philip Hobbs, now a top trainer, to join them when a lorry overtook them.
However, at that precise moment, West Tip whipped round as the HGV passed by. A hook on the bed of the HGV caught the horse on his near side hindquarters and tore a huge hole. When Hobbs arrived, he said he could see the bones of West Tip’s pelvis and a “hunk of flesh” hanging from the horse’s quarters.
The horrific injury required over 70 internal stitches and the horse owed his life to vet Peter Thorne, whose brother John was runner-up to Bob Champion and Aldaniti in the 1981 National, and Oliver’s squeamish wife Sarah.
Yet, while the horse always carried a triangular scar, there was no muscle damage to a horse who would ultimately become the making of Dunwoody, who cut a familiar figure in two-tone blue sweater that he sported on West Tip.
Short on fitness when battling on to finish seventh in the 1986 Ritz Club Chase at Cheltenham, a race won by Charter Party, who would be ridden to Gold Cup glory by Dunwoody two years later, West Tip then pleased connections with a run at Newbury before heading to Aintree.
Today, three races in such quick succession would be out of the question. Yet this horse had remarkable stamina – and a jockey who became a study in concentration as he, and West Tip, lined up at Aintree for their race to redemption.
Becher’s on the first circuit rode like a normal fence – the nerveless Dunwoody reported feeling West Tip shifting in mid-air if he sensed a faller.
They see a loose horse take out one of he leaders at the 17th and are relieved to avoid the chaos. Then the run to Becher’s – even now Dunwoody recalls Sommelier’s jockey Tom Taaffe, whose father Pat rode the incomparable Arkle to three Gold Cups, yelling at him to “stay in, stay in” as he edged out for a clear sight.
A year on, Dunwoody was not going to fall. They jump their nemseis fence and the relief visibly calms him. From then on, West Tip enjoys a trouble-free run and hit the front after the last from Young Driver, whose luckless jockey Chris Grant, now a successful trainer at Billingham, would ultimately finish runner-up in three Nationals.
Pulling his whip through to his right hand, Dunwoody and West Tip have the advantage of the running rail after the Elbow and have enough to repel Young Driver when the gallant second briefly rallied. In his autobiography Obsessed, Dunwoody described how the smile on his fresh faced masked the “euphoria” that he was feeling and belief, at the time, that “this is as good as it gets”.
When he finally watched the race’s replay, he was, however, nonplussed by his riding. “I didn’t look very good in the finish,” he rued. “When I sat down to ride West Tip, I bounced the saddle like an unfit amateur.”
Fast-forward 35 years and Dunwoody says that he was always his own harshest critic. “I think I always was,” he reflects. “The horse made it very easy for me and I certainly got the stronger in the finish.”
It also changed his career. “The win on West Tip helped get me the job at The Duke’s [David Nicholson] when Scu [Peter Scudamore] moved on,” he added. “It set my career. Without that, I would never had the success that I did with The Duke and, ultimately, champion jockey three times.”
Dunwoody would ultimately win 1,874 races – and enjoy a winning association with iconic horses like Desert Orchid and One Man – before a serious neck injury forced him to retire in 1999 and travel the world as he struggled to come to terms with life after racing.
Now, as he looks back, his abiding memory of West Tip is the horse jig-jogging on the famous walk back to the Aintree winners’ enclosure rather than the deep despair of the previous year when he feared that his world had ended. It had not.
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