1 January 2006

Tony McCoy explains why a few smashed teeth and bruises won’t diminish his quest for success

Deep in the core of every great champion a well of wildness lies. Into it they scoop to find the fresh, compulsive fury that sets them apart. Twice in the last month AP McCoy has reached right down to where the madness seethes. Ten years, 10 championships and a record-breaking 2,000 winners on from his first 100-winner season, he knows the mixture still works.

The first dose involved the scarcely credible tale of Tony’s teeth; smashed when his horse slipped up on the flat at Cheltenham on Dec 10 and so triggering a public address call of “is there a dentist in the crowd?” There was blood and gore enough to have bystanders retching but McCoy got himself cleaned up, ignored the pain, and rode the promising Black Jack Ketchum to win the last. “My face could have been broken to bits,” he said, “but I would have still come out to ride this lad. He has a great attitude to life.”

But that was only the beginning of the saga. On the Sunday he flew to Ireland for more rides and another fall. On Monday he had two unsuccessful mounts at Plumpton followed by having three root canals fixed in four hours in the dentist’s chair. More rides at Warwick on Tuesday before a teetotal trip to a London gala to support Richard Dunwoody ended horrifically back home in the small hours when he was seized by a shivering fit and taken to hospital by ambulance with fears of meningitis and a virus around the heart.

Cue for a few weeks in the sun? When Windsor was abandoned on Saturday, our hero flogged up to Haydock to ride a horse with the supremely inappropriate name of Don’t Push It to win the last.

The story and, most of all, the way it was told, was classic McCoy. He was trying to illustrate the variables in the never-ending battle to keep his powerful 5ft 11in frame somewhere near 10st 7lbs. “With all the antibiotics and things I was 11st 2 when I came out of hospital,” he says, before adding with a wry laugh, “and yet two days later I was 10st 5lbs and I have been light ever since. I had a spare ride in Ireland on Tuesday and, despite having Christmas dinner and everything, I did 10-7, with just 20 minutes in the sauna. So there were some plusses.”

He was curled up, cat-like on the modern kitchen sofa of his home on the edge of the small village of Kingston Lisle just west of Wantage with the gallops of the Berkshire Downs beckoning in the distance. He was, as ever, both extraordinarily courteous, astonishingly direct and self-deprecatingly funny. “Some days the weight is effing depressing,” he said. “You wake up in the morning, feel fit and lean and yet find you have four or five pounds to lose in a hot bath or the gym. I keep thinking that one day I won’t want to go through it any more but then you manage it and say, ‘that wasn’t too bad’.”

Around him were mementoes of a career which already makes him week in week out by far the most consistent champion in British sport. Ten years ago he went into January as a 21-year-old intent on winning his first title. Ever since we have watched in a sense of awed concern as the records have tumbled, culminating in that all-surpassing 289 winners in 2000-01; awed by the scale of the achievements, concerned at what the obsession might do to the psyche, let alone the physique.

There have been times, most notably during the winner-less and accident-filled Cheltenham Festival of 2002, when you genuinely worried for his sanity. But three years on and now riding first for Irish magnate JP McManus rather than fellow-obsessive Martin Pipe, there is an enviable order in his life. He has a full-time driver to get him to airport or racetrack. What he rides at the races is arranged by super agent Dave Roberts. All other bookings, flights, arrangements, even last month’s late night ambulance run, are handled by his PA, Gee Armytage, either from her scrupulously neat office next to the kitchen or from her own house five miles away.

“The idea is for me to concentrate on the riding and not do my head in,” said McCoy on Tuesday, looking out of the window at a young grey horse in the paddock. “Gee started with me some seven years ago. I thought it would give me a better chance of lasting a bit longer. For instance, tomorrow if I am on the early flight to Dublin, I will be picked up from the house, Gee will have booked the tickets, I will be driven to Leopardstown and be back in the evening. All I have to do is ride. And I think Brave Inca will beat Harchibald.”

Brave Inca landed the prediction and becomes one of the aces in what is becoming a promising McCoy hand for the big events of spring. “The statistics (a mere 117 winners so far, only 19 clear of perennial rival Richard Johnson) are worse,” he says, “but I feel I have a better set of horses to ride this year. At Cheltenham, besides Brave Inca, there are the likes of Darkness and Black Jack Ketchum and I don’t see how anything could beat Impek in the two and a half miler.”

The focus is intense, the relish for the future evident. But McCoy is still human (just). He is 31. He marries the independent and professional Channelle Burke in September. Model citizen he may be, but his is the most brutal wheel in sport. The range and wisdom of his technique may have broadened but surely the doubts and fears enter in? He takes the question. “The falls are going to happen,” he says very calmly, the Northern Ireland vowels flat in the voice. “You can’t be afraid of them. But this is all about winning, of getting round the course in front of the others, of using everything I have learnt to get a horse to run – and to jump. I couldn’t do it for any other reason.”

Then he tells of a second dip into the wildness pool. Of schooling a big, ignorant horse up the Mandown practice fences above Lambourn two weeks ago. “He was so thick I knew he was going to fall with me,” says McCoy. “Sure enough he got me buried. The guy with him said ‘shall we leave it?’ I said ‘absolutely effing not’. I was in such a temper I must have jumped at least 35 fences on him. I knew he might fall again but there was no effing way he was going to get the better of me.”

For all his politeness, you realise this last sentiment applies to humans, too. That’s the way with champions. That’s the secret, and the danger, of the waters in the well.

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