25 August 2002

Some day soon, maybe tomorrow, he will break the record of records. Some winter soon, hopefully this one, he will be given the honour that he has so surely earned. Tony McCoy ought to be the Sports Personality of The Year.

The record, a world record, is for the total number of jumping winners ridden in an entire career. It currently stands at 1,699 and was set by Richard Dunwoody, who had overtaken John Francome who had, in turn, beaten Stan Mellor – the first man to pass the thousand mark. All four are legends but it took them 15 years’ hard labour. Tony McCoy has got there in just eight.

For it was in August 1994 that McCoy came over from Ireland to join Toby Balding’s Hampshire stable as a 20-year-old unsung ex-Flat race apprentice with 13 winners to his name and, as yet, not a single ride in a steeplechase. At the end of that campaign he was champion `conditional’ with 74 winners, at the end of the next he was champion jockey with 175 winners. He has ruled the roost ever since and ended last season with the truly astounding total of 290 winners from 1,015 rides.

What’s more this is not just a numbers freak. Of course his job as first jockey to the phenomenal Martin Pipe guarantees him the most frequent winner stream ever to come from a stable. But McCoy is also a big race man, has won virtually ever major event bar the Grand National and has, in himself, rewritten the riding manual. He performs in high-perched Flat race style but somehow also applies full-power jump racing thrust. When we ex-jocks gather we talk to each other and shake our heads in wonder. “I have never,” says Jonjo O’Neill, a brilliant champion in his time, “seen anything like him.”

The workload involved is exhausting, even to run your eye over. From Folkestone to Perth, no track is too far for this hungriest-ever competitor. Non-racing Sundays in Britain are often used up by riding in his native Ireland. The new season, in the ridiculous way of these things, began on April 29th – two days after the last one closed. Since then Tony has amassed 93 winners and now needs just four to pass the Dunwoody total. In a 52-week working year this champion needs a suspension to take a holiday.

Even Lance Armstrong might find the prospect fairly arduous and remember it is all undertaken on literally starvation rations. For Tony is now a very different size to the diminutive “Wee Anthony” who used to run around his parents’ village store in Moneyglass, close to the shores of Lough Neagh, in Northern Ireland. He was 6 stone 4lbs and 5 foot 3 inches when he rode his first winner on the Flat at Dublin’s Phoenix Park, in September 1990, aged 16. By the time he rode his first English winner (on Chickabiddy at Devon and Exeter in September 1994) he had added three stones and 5 inches. His abiding agony is that the growing didn’t stop.

Nowadays, outsiders meeting him off the track find it almost impossible to believe he is a jockey. Lean faced he may always be, but at a wide-shouldered, 5 foot 11 inches you would guess his weight at well over 11 stone. And, given a couple of meals, that is exactly what he is. By sauna and simple, brutal self-denial, he regularly keeps almost another stone off his body weight. By all the formal rules of nutrition and physiology he should be seriously compromising both his physical and mental effectiveness. Maybe, but if the current regime is ineffective, his rivals are lucky the weight never allows them to meet the “real” McCoy.

The strength of body and mind needed to triumph in this schedule cannot be exaggerated. Balancing, controlling, driving and humouring half-a-ton of racehorse at thirty miles an hour takes a highly-ordered mix of nerve and muscle. To do that day after day in direct close-quarter racing competition over hurdles and fences needs nothing less than an addiction to get through. Shock horror, let’s reveal it, Tony McCoy is an addict. He’s addicted to winning.

That is not an entirely facetious statement. Having ridden fewer winners in my entire career than he does in half-a-season I have still never found anything to replace the sheer physical sweetness of the moment when the post flashes past and you and the horse beneath are home. That’s what makes long drives, cold mornings, empty stomachs, crashing falls and ambulance rides worthwhile. Tony goes through more than anyone else. Of himself and the game he demands success in return. When he says “winning is what it is all about”, it is nothing less than the truth.

Of course there are times, most particularly with the fatal falls at Cheltenham of Gloria Victis and Valiramix, when the obsession can seem to be close to breaking his psyche. This March he seemed an unhappy, demented, half-starved creature as he mourned the death of the grey Valiramix just as the Champion Hurdle was in his grasp. Some of us tut-tutted disapprovingly until we thought how we might have felt and until he then appeared on television that Saturday and was level-headed and as charming as he normally is.

For that last is the second big surprise that the outside would gather from meeting McCoy. Quite close to the surface of this ludicrously hyped-up, super-dedicated sporting champion is a dry-witted joker, who likes golf, football and watching his friends make fools of themselves with alcohol while he sips his Diet Coke. Yes, Tony McCoy is an extremely nice young man.

Comparisons with other sporting champions are odious as well as selective and my candidacy for McCoy as Sports Personality of The Year can hardly be unbiased. But think of the usual suspects. Ask yourself just where their achievements exceed this week’s record breaker. And start sending the letters now.

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