It had been the last and hottest day of June at Stratford on Avon. At the Royal Shakespeare Theatre the actors were going on stage for “The Winters Tale”. They must have been as hot as a cast of Hamlet I once saw kitted out in thick furs as if for the Arctic not Elsinore – but not as hot as British sport’s greatest player of all. At Stratford’s little racetrack, just to the west of town beside the river, Tony McCoy was in the sauna.
To acclaim him British Sport’s currently most successful performer despite only once making the top three in the voting for BBC Sports Personality of the Year may seem a bit over the top, but the truth is that no one else gets even close. Whatever the perils of National Hunt racing compared to the demands of any rival activities, it’s unchallengeable fact that no one has sustained so high a level of driven, fearless excellence at any major sport for anything like as long as A.P. McCoy. Champion conditional jockey in the first season since he came over from Ireland as a spotty twenty year old in 1994, and champion jockey every year since setting record after record to be now past 3,000 winners and counting. And that’s before all the falls and, even on the hottest day of the year, the sweating.
Every morning McCoy puts his apparently super-lean, five foot ten inch frame on the bathroom scales and hates what he sees. If he allowed himself a square meal or two he would soon weigh 12 stone. Even on the miserable commons he allows himself, the morning needle will often close near to 11 stone. And that means there will be three or four pounds to sweat off before the action of the afternoon.
To an outsider it seems an unlikely preparation for the intense physical and mental strain of firing half a ton of volatile racehorse through the galloping, bumping, leaping melee of a jump race. But even for this insider who had eight rather less glorious years on the jockey’s roller coaster in the sixties, McCoy’s application remains astonishing in both its rigidity and its undoubted effectiveness. “Some mornings” he says, “when I have the hot bath run, I hate it so much that I am on my knees and just crying at the thought of it. But it has to be done.”
When he talks like that you actually fear for him, and when he appeared for his first ride that evening at Stratford the sight and sound was hardly reassuring. The face was gaunt, the eyes hollow, the heated tint of the normally so white skin accentuated by the pink silks of his race colours, and that quiet County Antrim voice even more downbeat and deadpan masochistic than normal. “I don’t know what I am doing here,” he said, “this first ride is all right but the other one looks to me to have no chance. I can’t see why my agent has booked it.”
If you did not know McCoy you might not have been too keen to entrust much money on his chances of delivering the odds on an 8 year old gelding rejoicing in the name of Keepitsecret in the upcoming two and half mile, thirteen fence steeplechase. The horse might have already won 6 races over jumps and strut big and bold round the paddock, but he had also got rid of his jockey on three occasions, and last time at Worcester he had all but demolished the second last fence and only a piece of prehensile McCoy acrobatics had kept his rider in the saddle. When you see the animal thundering head down and impetuous to the start such records are not reassuring. But those of his jockey are.
At the start of this last day of June, McCoy’s score for the 12 month season which began on the first of May was 48 winners from 182 rides, already well clear of his rivals in pursuit of a 15th consecutive jockeys’ championship. A fortnight earlier, at the inaugural meeting of Wales’ new racetrack at Ffos Llas near Cardiff he had ridden in 7 races logging up three winners and a second place in which he weighed out with his postage stamp of a saddle at just 10 stone 5lbs. McCoy may look beaten up on occasion, but something un-dimmable drives him from deep within.
It was there from the very beginning. He may have showed nothing exceptional in his ordinary life; the 6 children family that carpenter Peadar McCoy and his wife Claire raised in their house and general store in the little village of Moneyglass, near Lough Neagh, some fifty miles west of Belfast in County Antrim, was and is quite enviably loving and normal. There may have been no miracles when the future champion first got placed on a quite unrideable borrowed pony and then on to a more reasonable and not unsuccessful little mare called Chippy. But once, aged 12 and weighing a mere five stone, he was linked to a gentleman of a racehorse called Wood Louse at the stables of local trainer Billy Rock, Anthony Peter McCoy knew exactly what he wanted.
“Yes, there must have been something to make me get up at 7 in the morning and bike to Billy Rock’s,” says Tony (his adopted media and outsider’s name, his friends and family call him Anthony or A.P.) with that rather detached amusement with which he looks at his own phenomenon. “It was 8 or 10 miles, most of it uphill and me weighing only five stone. It was not as if my parents were pushing me or that I liked riding my bike particularly. There must have been something made me want to ride horses that much.”
In view of the sensational impact McCoy made from the moment he joined Toby Balding’s stable at Fyfield near Andover in August 1994, it’s easy to imagine that “Wee Anthony”, as he was known at Billy Rock’s, had been something of a teenage sensation when he moved on to Jim Bolger’s famous stable and jockey “academy” in Kilkenny in April 1990. The figures tell a rather different story.
For whilst a 16 year old A.P.McCoy did have his first race ride for the famously disciplined Bolger at Dublin’s Phoenix Park track on 1st September 1990, he only had one other mount in public that season, just seventeen the next year and his first winner did not come until March 1992. Indeed by the time he sailed from Rosslare to try his luck in England, the sum total of his four years of public Irish effort had been 103 races, winning 6 on the flat and 7 over hurdles and his only attempt at the bigger jumps saw him dumped on the turf at the seventh fence at Galway. It hardly reads as a sizzling start but, astonishingly, the maker of it was always sure that his destiny would come.
“I don’t mind saying it now and I don’t want it to sound arrogant,” he confided the day after our Stratford adventures, “But I never ever doubted that I could do it. Even when I broke my leg (in January 1993 he snapped it so badly on the gallops that the bones were sticking out through his jodphurs) I never lost my belief. I genuinely didn’t think it was my fault I wasn’t riding winners. I just wasn’t having the chances.”
Before you can interpret this as a whinge against his old Irish mentor, A.P. quickly adds, “looking back on it now I can totally see that the experience I had with Jim was the making of me. A lot of kids start off too fast and then struggle when they lose their “claim” (an allowance for young riders until they have ridden a certain number of winners). With Jim I had been properly educated and disciplined (like Bolger he neither smokes nor drinks) and I thought I was mentally quite aware and that I had the physical mechanics quite well. I had a fair idea that when I got a chance I would be able to take it.”
How he did so is now long into legend: champion “conditional” (rookie) jockey with 75 winners in his first year, champion overall next time with 175 as a freelance, and then on to winner-glutted seasons with trainer Martin Pipe culminating in the almost incomprehensible 289 record score in 1995. When McCoy ended that association to take up a lucrative retainer from Irish owner JP McManus in 2004 many thought that it marked an understandable opting for an easier life. 200 winners in the next season gave the lie to that, just as the 186 score for last term did to the injury induced “slump” of “only” 140 winners the year before.
The 1,000th winner came up at Cheltenham in December 1999, the 2,000th at Wincanton in January 2004, the 3,000th overall at a rain-lashed Plumpton in March this year, the 3,000th in UK at a sun scorched Newton Abbot this June. With quantity, quality has come too. He won both the Gold Cup and Champion Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival in 1997 and since then only the Grand National of the major races has continued to elude him. But if these be riches, of which the magnificent newly-built mansion where he, his wife Chanelle and 18 month apple-of-the-eye Eve now live on the hillcrest south of Lambourn is but the latest expression, they have been bought at quite a price.
The risk of fractures, concussion, and of injury-free but simple, brutal, smacking pain, ride with him every time he leaves the paddock and, as we saw so vividly at Stratford, the daily rack of the steam bath is also ever present. With every risk-taker, especially with every jockey, there comes a time when there is more to be lost than there is to be gained, when the keenness of the desire is blunted, when the percentages of caution begin to lessen the boldness of the victory drive. Stratford in mid-summer is about as far away as you can get from the baying crowds and TV millions of Cheltenham and Aintree. If there is any diminution this is the sort of place that it will show.
But even the first glimpse of McCoy in the paddock was a warning for pessimists to be ready with their script. Our limping hero (from a fall a fortnight earlier) may still have looked spare enough to audition for a Holocaust movie, but in every other sense he had his “game face” on. The mood of self flagellating despair was replaced by one of purposeful intent. Beside him McManus’ principal UK trainer Jonjo O’Neill cuts a smaller, sunnier, balding figure as they discuss Keepitsecret’s prospects. O’Neill was a record breaking champion jockey in his time and a winning battle with cancer has given him a serenity ordinary victories cannot match. But he too is in awe of Tony’s talent. The question, as always, is will the horse be too?
Most important of all, will Keepitsecret heed take-off signals from the saddle he so dangerously ignored last time he ran? Time was when the default McCoy method in alliance with the extra-fit Martin Pipe battalions was to make every post a winning post and every leap a mighty one. But the years have added a degree of patience to the technique which becomes very evident as horse and jockey bear down on the fence in front of us on the first circuit at Stratford.
Jumping a steeplechase fence is easy if a horse meets it exactly in the take off stride. It is when you are out of stride that decisions have to be made above the saddle: should you press on for a long early leap, or tighten up for a shorter, neater if slower one. As they reach us Keepitsecret’s stride was clearly wrong. McCoy sits tight. The horse bunny hops at full gallop and crosses awkwardly if safely. McCoy doesn’t like it. When they get to us for what will be the final jump Keepitsecret is given no second option. The stride is on. McCoy drives in and hard and another winner is added to the most extraordinary tally in the sport.
“I left him alone when I came past you first time,” the rider explained afterwards, “but he could not handle it. He needs his head held. After that I was very positive and he was good.” The adrenalin is flowing, McCoy is now on his performance planet fuelled by the winning drug without which he hardly functions. Miss Phoebe, the horse of which he had queried agent Dave Roberts’ booking, might not be favourite but the job must be done. Giles Smyly is at the other end of the scale to Jonjo O’Neill. Previously involved in point to points he has never had a winner at Stratford, never before hired McCoy. The wonder, for him, is that he can.
“I can’t think of any other sport,” said Smyly afterwards, “where someone like me can not only employ the very best but has to pay no more than the usual £115 plus VAT that every other jockey gets. In the paddock A.P. was very frank and very professional. He said he thought that there would be two others much better than our’s, but that he would put her close to the leaders and give her every chance. We were treated as if it were the Champion Hurdle.”
You will guess what happened. However deep his misgivings beforehand the dark-goggled McCoy placed Miss Phoebe perfectly along the rail as if she were odds-on rather than a 9-1 shot. The mare appreciated the belief, took command of her 14 rivals at the third last hurdle and held off the favourite decisively on the run-in. The McCoy stirrups are shorter than ten years ago and the long levers of the body more compressed as once again they generate the greatest winning compulsion the game has ever seen. Fifty up for the new season and we have not even made July.
As McCoy remembers it next morning his face begins to regain its victory glow. “However depressed I might be beforehand,” he says, “by the time I get to the start I convince myself I am going to ride a winner. I know that my agent doesn’t actually put me on anything he doesn’t think has a chance. Everything becomes a blur and it is just me and the horse. There are others to beat but most of all I have to do my job properly. Can I make it brave? Can I make it do its best? That is all that matters.”
Around us in a large and immaculate living room with a breathtaking view down the Lambourn Valley are the trappings of his success, the fifteen championship trophies on the mantlepiece surrounding a diminutive TV camera-styled silver statuette denoting third place in the BBC vote in 2002. His wife Chanelle has gone off to the Hungerford office from which she runs her own international pharmaceutical business. The adored Eve is round the corner in the nursery. The road to five rides at Worcester beckons and agent Dave Roberts is on the phone again about tomorrow’s mounts up in Perth.
Amidst all this a question looms like an elephant in the room. At 35, how much longer will A.P. endure the endless round of sweat and starvation to put everything on the line, especially at these minor summer meetings? “I won’t be riding until I am 40 if that is what you are worried about,” he says with a laugh. “But anyway I don’t feel any different. I am naturally very fit and when I went and had my annual full scale health check and brain scan in Monaco the day after Ffos Las, the only thing they could find wrong was a bit of arthritis in my hip. And their only other finding was that my stomach capacity was nearly twice the normal. How useful is that for me?”
He talks of a family break in Portugal, of golfing trips, of his great friend, rival and perennial house guest, the Irish champion Ruby Walsh, of the stables and gallops he is putting into the property to rent out but not to train himself. But above all McCoy talks of the addiction that still holds him. “When I am not riding lots more winners than the others, I will know I have to stop. But before that, this is everything. Getting to know what a horse is capable of and convincing myself that even if it does fall I am always going to get up. Understanding how much more it has to give, building up its finishing effort, realizing where the winning post is. It’s about timing and getting that little bit extra and knowing you are going to get it. That’s the kick, the moment of elation. It may be thirty seconds, at best five minutes, but that is what we do it for.”
He may be lean and light and unfailingly courteous, but you can feel the strength, the fearlessness within him. “Yes I did enjoy going to Stratford and winning on Keepitsecret and Miss Phoebe,” he says. “Winning is what makes me happy. It’s what I do.”