4,000 winners at nearly 40; for a jump jockey it could not, should not happen but it has. Yet with McCoy there is something even more extraordinary to register. Despite all the odds, despite the years, despite the falls, despite nature itself, AP is actually better now than he has ever been.
That is a statement so seemingly preposterous that my fingers are physically reluctant to tap the words on to the screen. But I am not alone in that opinion. In the last fortnight the same verdict has been volunteered by two of the most eminent former masters of McCoy’s profession thirty three years on since they fought out one of Cheltenham’s most famous duels, the 1979 Champion Hurdle battle in which Dessie Hughes and Monksfield just outgunned a young Jonjo O’Neill on Sea Pigeon.
“I know I am biased and I see him nearly every day,” says O’Neill for whom AP has ridden 300 winners in the last five seasons, “but I honestly believe he is doing it better now. I watch him here schooling, I see him through his races, I talk through them afterwards and he knows so much and he can ride anything. He is an absolutely extraordinary man.” In the same period Hughes has only used the McCoy services four times for just one winner but is no less stinting in his praise. “Jockeys do get better as they get older provided they don’t lose their bottle,” says Dessie whose 40 year old champion jockey son Richard has just given a Breeders Cup master class on the two year old Chryselliam, “And AP has certainly not lost his.”
What is all the more remarkable is that things felt very different earlier in the year. For those of us who saw him hurt at Cheltenham on April 18th were left convinced that the covers should be readied to wrap up the McCoy career. It had seemed the silliest of falls. What was meant to be a confidence restoring spin over hurdles for the chaser Qualitativeasing had gone spectacularly wrong when the horse tripped on landing at the second flight and flipped the 17 times champion jockey airwards as if he were a spent cartridge from a shotgun. Something stepped on AP and he was in trouble.
In the ambulance the nurse asked how high the pain registered to a score of ten. High on the morphine gas the kingdom’s most informed man on the subject gave a twisted gallows grin and said “eight and a half.” At first the doctors could not find anything more than cracked ribs and the incorrigible pilot had even summoned a driver to take him back to what, with his wife and daughter being away , would have been an empty house. Deeper inspection found that the whole rib cage was damaged, a lung was punctured and this most un-detainable of patients had to spend seven full nights in that hospital bed.
There had been many bad falls but this one seemed different. AP was thirty nine now. He and his wife Channelle had a much loved daughter and a little boy was due in the summer. He had admitted to more than the ambulance man that the pain had been quite intolerable. Not for the first or the last time, some of us counselled that continuation was taking courage far into the realms of foolhardiness. Worse still the first sight of him on a racecourse was anything but reassuring.
It was at Fontwell on Tuesday June 11th. The track was awash with rain and with grief at the death that morning of Henry Cecil, but AP and Andrew Thornton cheerfully brought a bunch of riders to talk to our group of old heroes from the Injured Jockeys Fund. The champion happily joked of the drunken joy of the “happy gas” and delightedly showed us his latest physical exhibit, a jagged protuberance at the front of his sweat shirt which was the now permanently bent edge of his rib cage. Even the most seasoned of old sweats shook their heads in disbelief. A.p. went off and rode a winner but we still muttered to ourselves “he cannot ever be what he was.”
And for a time I am convinced we were right. I would watch the replays in the evening and at times find the figure in the McManus green and gold colours so upright and stiff in its rhythm that I would think it was not McCoy but one of O’Neill’s other riders, Linehan or McClernon on a bad day. I would ring a friend and say that the man with the scythe had finally got A.P. as get him he must. Not for the first, or again doubtless the last time, we would ring our hands in worrry . Then I would remember that the jockey in question was still galvanizing his horses to victory in the same relentless way . Then AP went and dared up the inside to win the Galway Plate , the tightest and most demanding summer race of them all. Nor for the first or the last time , I had to shut up.
For I had been fussing for years. Way back in 1995 we shared a car from Toby Balding’s house at Weyhill to Paul Nicholls schooling ground in Somerset. AP came across as a very polite if driven 21 year old, still a bit spotty and physically unformed but utterly natural in the saddle. At the end of the session Nicholls came over and said quietly “this boy has the most wonderful balance, he always has the horses at ease under him.” At Wincanton later you could see the balance and drive but the stretched skin across the cheek bones and the time spent in the sauna showed how tough the battle with the weight would be. I remember writing about the talent and worrying that unless he slowed down and let the weight up a few pounds, he would never last. And to think his total was hardly more than two hundred at that stage.
But if the years have not showed diminution they have evolved evolution and very much for the better. For while he was still pleasant and humorous enough in private, there was something slightly frightening as well as thrilling about the furies that drove him in the saddle. Allied to the all conquering, super-fit Martin Pipe team he got astonishing results roaring away in front as he did on Make A Stand in the 1997 Champion Hurdle. His implacable commitment at an obstacle could sometimes put spring heels on to the ropiest of jumpers and I recall John Francome whistling through his teeth in admiration at the sheer physical bravery with which the young McCoy launched the gangly Mr Mulligan at fence after Cheltenham fence to win the Gold Cup two days after Make A Stand’s Champion. Yet there were occasions when he would commit too early or drive too hard and the near insanity of his grief when Gloria Victis got killed in the 2000 Gold Cup was doubled when the infinitely promising Valiramix met the same fate in the 2002 Champion Hurdle.
Winning was everything but while he became the punters’ friend his intensity with the whip made him the stewards enemy. This culminating in 1998 when McCoy’s finish on Pridwell at Aintree was voted Ride Of The Year as well as earning him a ban for excessive use of the whip. The rancour of seemingly being penalised for trying too hard finally boiled over at Cheltenham in November when the champion jockey threw his whip furiously into the crowd as he was led back after winning what was then the Murphy’s Gold Cup on Cyfor Malta.
It was an impasse that even McCoy’s legendary stubborness was not going to win and even his then defenders such as myself now have to acknowledged that the toning down he has made to his technique has notably enhanced rather than hindered his effectiveness. Because for all his astonishing winner totals – 289 from 1006 rides, a strike rate of 29%, in 2002 – there was something in the criticism which Richard Dunwoody was prepared to level. McCoy’s former idol told of a hurdle race at Worcester in which AP as usual set off furiously in front on a reluctant looking Martin Pipe runner but after a circuit and a half of super human dynamics finally gave up the battle. Half a mile later, the mare picked up again and swept through to victory. “There are,” said Richard pointedly, “quite a few ways of skinning a cat.”
McCoy would not be half the jockey he is if he did not have intelligence to match his intensity and his amazing longevity is proof of that. It is not only his riding style that he has adapted. “I don’t really do a lot,” he said one afternoon curled up like cat on his sofa when he lived near Wantage, “if I could I would lie in bed all day on a Sunday. Tomorrow I have three rides at Newcastle but Gee (Armytage, his long serving PA) has given me the air tickets, my driver will pick me up in the morning to take me to the airport, another taxi has been booked to get me to and from the track. I might have a sweat when I get there, then all I have to do is ride.”
There is sense behind the self deprecation because over the years McCoy has been able to do that most difficult of all sporting tricks, to have success sharpen not blunt the cutting edge of his talent. So what we get today is accumulated wisdom to match the continuing determination. There is still the brutal self denial that starves the body and makes the mind ever more ravenous for victory. But there is also a mastery of the metier that is a long way on from the early days when he could be rightly accused of committing himself too early.
On the first day of the last month’s Cheltenham meeting he was riding a three mile chaser called Twirling Magnet for Jonjo O’Neill. “This feller has a chance on a good day,” says his trainer as the field passes with A.P. out the back, “but his wind is bad, he will need some nursing from the man on top.” So the race developed with McCoy smuggling his horse nearer and nearer the leaders to finally get in contentions with a big leap at the second last and then keep the rhythm running with that long levered, clamped leg, elbow-pumping drive that brooks no argument. “Even after all this time,” said Jonjo shaking his head, “people don’t realise just how good he is.”
But we have to do more than celebrate McCoy’s prowess today, we have also to put it in context. In a ridiculously over fortunate life I have been lucky to see Gordon Richards, Scobie Breasley, Lester Piggott, Pat Eddery and others all the way through to the sweet skills of Richard Hughes and the flawless orthodox all round compulsion of Ryan Moore. Jump racing has stretched from Bryan Marshall through Fred Winter, Terry Biddlecombe, John Francome, Peter Scudamore, and Richard Dunwoody and I can honestly say that there is no one to match the wonder that is McCoy. More than that I have had the thrill of watching and writing about stars as diverse as Muhammed Ali, George Best, Jack Nicklaus, Seb Coe Michael Schumacher and Usain Bolt. They were all legends but none of them have equalled McCoy’s sheer sustained excellence on the most brutal treadmill in sport.
Yet that is not all. For we have finally to return to the original proposition. It is that twenty years,1,000 falls, 4,000 winners, 20,000 rides and only about three square meals in, AP McCoy is actually better than he has ever been. It should not, cannot be true. But it probably is.