No final ride has ever had such fanfare. Few in the land can have been unaware that this was A.P.McCoy’s 20th and last Grand National. Headlines and airwaves were full of puns on “National Treasure.” Bookmakers wailed at the prospect of such a victory and for much of McCoy and Shutthefrontdoor’s four and a half mile journey it looked as if their nightmare and racing’s fairy tale might come true. But the dream faded into fifth place and nice try but no cigar.
The wonder is not that he did not win but that yesterday, a month short of his 41st birthday, twenty years on since he fell at the 12th fence on his first National ride, he could come to the saddle with a 20th consecutive jockeys’ championship already assured and still the undisputed master of the weighing room. In1996 I spent a day with him on the way to his first title. The conclusion was simple: enormous talent, phenomenal commitment but at 5 foot 11 and already a natural eleven stone there was no way his body could stand the attrition of the wasting and the falls that would lie ahead.
At 11.30 on Friday morning he stood on the modern scales at Aintree with just a towel for cover. The body has been put through blows and dehydration enough to make any insurance company cower yet here was the clock reading 10 stone 4lbs, the torso strong enough to have five more rides and a 230th winner of the season in the afternoon. What’s more he was alert, polite and ready for a media course every bit as enduring as what he was to face on the track.
Time was when he was so withdrawn and wary with the outside world that friends would vainly plea “he is really a nice and funny guy in private.” Now in interview after interview culminating in 5Live’s grandiosely entitled “An Audience with A.P.McCoy”, he told of how much he loved riding, how lucky he had been, and how honoured he was by the reception he was receiving.
Two months ago, when he announced at Newbury that he would retire at the end of the season, many of us thought he was giving a dangerous hostage to fortune, that the acceptance of the end would inhibit the final weeks to come. Standing down at the last fence on Friday and seeing him clamp deep in to the horse beneath sending heart and body into the leap you could see that our fears were without foundation. Far from going out with a whimper, this was a champion utterly set on leaving us with memories of his pomp.
Seeing him talking to Jonjo O’Neill afterwards was to think back to the impossibly good day of Grand National victory in those same green and gold McManus silks on Don’t Push It in 2010 and the equally ghastly afternoon when Synchronized was killed in 2012. Now there was no death, just disappointment and and then a champion ruminating on what might have been and what can now never happen again.
“I thought I was on a horse that was very much going to live the dream,” he said. “He just got a little tired from the fourth last, he made a little mistake at the third last. It felt like he ran out of stamina. It’s great for Leighton Aspell and Trevor Hemmings. I really enjoyed myself out there,” he added with a truth that many observers have missed over the years. “There’s nothing like riding in the Grand National, for the thrill and the buzz, especially if you are on a horse that takes you round and whom you think has a genuine chance of winning. There’s no feeling like it. I would love to have another go but that is not going to happen.”
“I thought I was travelling well, he seemed to be a safe jumper, he wasn’t making many mistakes. Yes there was one at the third last but that was maybe because he was running out of stamina. But I genuinely thought I was going to win. He travelled so well early doors. Then it was about saving as much energy as we could, keep it simple, keep him out of trouble, try to take every hazard out of the equation. I got a great ride off him.”
Yes he’s going to miss it all horribly. But not as much as we’ll miss him.