7 December 2008

Tony McCoy has broken all the records in the game, but his eyes as well as that gaunt white face, still bear witness to the hunger within. “To ride a horse like this round Sandown,” he said after he and Master Minded had powered home in The Tingle Creek Chase, “is what a jump jockey lives for.”

This addiction to winning, the compulsion to compete, is at the core of the McCoy phenomenon. It means that only success can satisfy and while, with 111 winners this season, he is already more than 30 clear of his nearest rival, his retainer for J P McManus means that he is not normally aboard the all-conquering horses of Nicky Henderson or Paul Nicholls for the marquee events of a Saturday. But he makes quite a substitute. Four winners for Henderson at Newbury the previous Saturday and a real six-hitter of a ride on Master Minded for Nicholls as part of another four-timer yesterday.

“I’m very lucky to be allowed to ride him,” said McCoy, without a trace of mockery before adding, “anyone could have ridden him even Ruby [Walsh] and he’s only half fit – in fact I’m surprised he didn’t try to.”

In a world of spoilt and uncommunicative sports stars it was uplifting to hear the unfeigned delight of racing’s greatest performer. “He’s a very good horse who deserves his rating,” he said of Master Minded, who is currently officially assessed as the world’s most talented chaser. “He’s a good traveller, a good jumper and we spent the whole race worrying about the loose horse.”

For at the very first fence, the tearaway German horse Fiepes Shuffle threw in such an extravagant leap that the laws of gravity claimed him on the landing side. The pride of Hanover took a furlong to get his bearings and then the furies inside rocketed him to the front of the field, where McCoy had placed Master Minded alongside northern challenger Tidal Bay.

The pace they were going and the pressure it exerts down those two closely-positioned sets of three fences down the backstretch saw Tidal Bay back off the nimble-footed Master Minded, who had needed an almost balletic sidestep to skip over the rolling frame of Fiepes Shuffle at the first. All the time McCoy was looking at the loose horse and where it might suddenly take him. All the while an unfairly unrated threat began to emerge in Twist Magic, Master Minded’s stable companion who won the race last year.

Running to the second-last Twist Magic was only a length behind but got in close and did a slow motion capsize on landing. “I’m not saying I would have won,” said jockey Robert Thornton, “but I would have given him something to think about.”

Only a race earlier Thornton had already trumped McCoy’s ace when lifting the giant Araldur past Free World, who carried the same green and yellow silks of Master Minded and Kauto Star’s owner Clive Smith. But from the way the champion jockey drove Master Minded into and over the last fence to leave Arkle Chase winner Tidal Bay 10 long lengths in his wake, Thornton would have needed a whole deck of cards to beat him.

For this was another day of McCoy unchained. Four winners at Newbury, four more yesterday: a scintillating success on the classically-bred but fragile-limbed Clay Hollister in the first; the power performance on Master Minded altogether eclipsed by the inspirational efforts on Sunnyhillboy and Kilbeggan Blade to lift the last two races in the final few strides. The beaten jockeys did nothing wrong, but the Sandown hill is a desperate place with a horse struggling beneath you. With McCoy on the closing rival it becomes an impossible one.

When he is in this mood AP McCoy is the most implacable force not just in racing but in the whole world of sport. Going to the last fence, Kilbeggan Blade was at full stretch, as he had been for a full quarter mile. But on top of him was a coiled and driving force that was going to brook no argument.

Into and over that 24th and last fence went horse and rider. Bowleaze had led him, L’Aventure and Eric’s Charm were closing, but for McCoy three winners were never going to be enough. The open, pitiless Sandown slope is a bad place for big, weary horses with three and a half miles already run. If a rider’s resolution falters for a single stride all momentum is surrendered. That word does not exist in the McCoy vocabulary. Kilbeggan Blade ran straight and, utterly exhausted, true. It’s never been done better.

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