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Racing legend Dunwoody's alarming memory lapses after 680 bad falls and eight severe concussions

By Claire McNeilly

Published 29/04/2016

Richard Dunwoody
Richard Dunwoody
Richard Dunwoody has had more than his fair share of falls on the racecourse
Richard Dunwoody has had more than his fair share of falls on the racecourse
Richard Dunwoody has had more than his fair share of falls on the racecourse, offset by memorable wins such as on Miinnehoma in the 1994 Grand National
Richard’s partner Olivia McDonald
Richard’s father George

Legendary Northern Ireland jockey Richard Dunwoody has revealed he worries about the long-term effects of brain injuries he sustained during a hugely successful racing career.

The Belfast man also told how he believed repeated concussions had robbed him of "an entire year" of his life through an inability to recall key moments.

On one occasion he said he had forgotten he was divorced until he read it in a newspaper. Similarly, he had no recollection of ending his working relationship with trainer Martin Pipe until he saw it reported in banner headlines.

In a revealing interview with the Belfast Telegraph, the 52-year-old three-times National Hunt champion - whose father and grandfather both succumbed to dementia in their latter years - added that he would not try to dissuade his young daughter, Milly, should she wish to follow in his footsteps and become a jockey.

"The more we find out about concussion, the more we can handle it," said Dunwoody, who has agreed to be a human guinea pig for new research.

"The study might prove that we are no more susceptible to negative effects from various concussions, but I for one would like to find out - and sooner rather than later.

"My daughter will no doubt be riding ponies some day. You can put her in a decent helmet, but there's always a chance that she could get a fall and could at some stage suffer concussion in the future. Everyone who gets on a horse knows there's risks."

Dunwoody, who attended the Irish launch of the International Concussion Head Injury Research Foundation Concussion in Sport research project earlier this week, believes he was unseated approximately 680 times during a career that spawned 1,699 winners in the UK alone, including two Grand Nationals and four King George VI triumphs, two of which were on the world-famous grey Desert Orchid.

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.

Meanwhile, his father, George Dunwoody, an amateur, suffered a similar injury in 1950, which deprived him of a ride in that year's Grand National.

Their sporting and medical history - including the fact that both of them suffered dementia towards the end of their lives - is something that Dunwoody admitted has given him pause for thought when it comes to contemplating his own mental and physical health.

"I'm concerned about the lasting effects of concussion, and that's why this independent study is being undertaken - to look at the long-term neurological effects of impact sports on retired athletes," the retired jockey said.

The renowned horseman, who was awarded an MBE in 1993 for his services to racing, told how he blacked out and experienced memory loss on numerous occasions.

"I probably suffered between six and eight really serious concussions," he said.

"The first time (in Huntingdon in 1985 when he was unseated from Silent Tango), I woke up in the ambulance 10 or 15 minutes after my fall... and there was similar memory loss from other concussions."

He admitted that the worst of them was at Hereford in 1995, when he read a newspaper in the changing rooms afterwards to find out that he had split from his trainer - and his wife. "I had no recall until two or three hours after the fall," Dunwoody said. "That's how concussion can affect you.

"I picked up the nearest copy of the Sporting Life and there I was, plastered all over the front page... something along the lines of 'Dunwoody Leaves Pipe' in huge headlines.

"I was really confused. At the time I was trying to think of why I would leave a trainer I believed was the best there was.

"And there was another shock at the end of the same article - apparently, I'd got divorced from my wife earlier in the year! Again, that was news to me.

"In effect, and in my mind, I'd probably lost a complete year of my life."

The former Strictly Come Dancing contestant said that it was not until he began the drive home from that Hereford meeting that he remembered he had a new girlfriend - following a rather painful divorce from first wife, Carol.

The man whose haul of winners was a record until compatriot Tony McCoy overtook him in 2002, now shares homes in Pangbourne, Berkshire, and Gaucin, southern Spain, with current partner Olivia McDonald, who works as a product developer, and their six-month-old baby daughter Emilia, who is affectionately known as Milly.

Having emulated the great Ernest Shackleton by trekking to the South Pole in 2008, adrenalin junkie Dunwoody is now an acclaimed professional photographer and occasional motivational speaker.

The fear that he damaged his brain prior to his enforced retirement from racing due to neck injuries in 1999 is, however, never far away from the legendary jockey's thoughts.

"After the bad falls, I came back and I was fine... or maybe I thought I was fine 24 hours later but probably wasn't right really for a couple of weeks," he said.

Dunwoody gives the distinct impression that his fears over the effects of concussion are linked to being a new dad.

"The rules on concussion are certainly a lot different than from when I was riding - now there are totally different standards," he said.

"Emilia won't be riding for a while ,but if she wants to follow in daddy's footsteps I won't stop her."

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