Forget about jockeys, the comparison we need to make with A.P. McCoy is across the whole range of sport. And no one else comes close.
Not for skill. What’s needed in football, tennis, athletics, golf, boxing, cycling or Formula One cannot sensibly be compared to what a jockey has to have when he pulls the goggles down. For skill alone you can’t even put A.P. far ahead of his fellow riders. Indeed many, including McCoy himself, will say that Ruby Walsh has more talent at presenting a horse at a fence. Not for speed or strength, because in sheer athletic terms A.P’s lifting power and fleetness of foot would be outgunned by all but the kids’ team at his beloved Arsenal. Certainly not for money, where his percentage of under £5 million for his 4,000 plus winners looks like chicken feed compared to fellow Ulsterman Rory McIlroy passing $10 million in 2012, a year in which Floyd Mayweather collected a cool $85 million for just two fights.
A.P.McCoy may not have the hand eye talents or athletic attributes of other contenders for the greatest sportsman of our time. But he has other qualities so awesome that most of the others would best stop the discussion right here. For, and let’s say it slowly, for sheer sustained, consistent ever-improving, day-by-day, edge-of-impact, mental and physical excellence and daring, A.P. has set a standard never matched, never likely to be matched, anywhere anytime.
This is not for any one achievement. Even that fairy-tale Grand National success on Don’t Push It pales by comparison with the endurance demanded by the Tour De France; the four day, 72 hole concentration of an Open Golf; the four hour combat of a Wimbledon Final; the explosive power of an Olympic 100 metres; the brutal, battering mind and body ordeal of a world boxing world title; or the millisecond, death defying decisions involved in winning a Grand Prix or something as lethal as the Isle of Man T.T.
Where McCoy demands attention and defies comparison is in the relentless application and achievement over an unprecedented 20 consecutive championship winning period. Such domination would be hard enough in any sport but to do it in one where hospitalisations are a norm and where he operates every day at a stone below his natural body weight is hard enough for long standing racing watchers to accept, utterly inexplicable to outsiders. Impressed as I was when I first interviewed him in January 1996, the one certainty was that it was all too good to last. “Too much body,” went the opening line, “but an awful lot of head.” Well at least there was truth in the second part.
Back then he was just 21. It was a year before Bradley Wiggins would first represent Britain in the Juniors and two and a half before Steven Gerrard’s first cap for Liverpool, yet on that freezing January day at Wincanton McCoy had already been champion conditional in his first season, was well past his century for the current term and was now 20 winners clear of his nearest rivals with most of us still shaking our heads in disbelief. But the meteoric rise had been accompanied by a late growth spurt taking his height up one and a half inches to 5ft 10 and his weight to a pared down 9 stone13 as he sweated in the sauna. You watched him and wondered. Could he last?
What was happening out on the track was sensational enough. That day at Wincanton he won the Juvenile Hurdle by six lengths, the Novice Chase by five. That made it nine winners in the last seven days and included what was at that stage the biggest victory of his career, the worthy but hardly stellar Lanzarote Hurdle at Kempton. It was a golden run. Tony (as the British public called him) was riding at the crest of a great wave of confidence as yet unhampered by public set back. But old lags said he was only at the head of the table owing to injuries to Adrian Maguire and Norman Williamson and to stars like Richard Dunwoody and Jamie Osborne not getting involved in the first part of the new 12 month season. McCoy was but the latest new comet to streak through our firmament. Things would very different once he had first crashed to earth.
Which he did. With the supreme irony it was exactly a year on in the same novice chase in which he had so impressed at Wincanton. A chestnut horse called Speedy Snapsgem had fallen fatally at the first and McCoy was off to hospital with internal bleeding and fractures to his shoulder and collar-bone. Two months earlier he had beaten by 30 days the record for the fastest 100 and with 130 winners already logged looked locked on for a second championship. But now everything was in doubt. How would he handle it?
It happens to all sportsmen. The knee, the back, the fractures and muscle strains, and then the doubts to mind and body. Plenty have kept on. Five of Michael Schumacher’s seven world championships were achieved after he smashed his leg in that horrific head on crash at Silverstone in 1999, and sports heroes as different as Ian Botham and Roger Federer both regained the top flight after spinal surgery. But in jump racing every major crash tends to reduce your longevity and ever so slightly blunt the edge of your desire. So even though McCoy was back hardly a month after that Wincanton fall and then blitzed both the Gold Cup and the Champion Hurdle at the 1996 Festival, we still looked and wondered. This was a young man’s hunger. As the years pass and the bank balance and the waist line thicken, finesse takes over from forcefulness, the ambition has to dip, the craving and commitment lessen.
It’s only natural. There has been something sad about Steven Gerrard’s struggles this season, just as there was when Bradley Wiggins became a blurred reflection of his former self when he went to defend The Tour de France. In December 1989 I went to Las Vegas to see the final meeting between Sugar Ray Leonard and Roberto Duran. There was much hype but they were shadows of the unbelievable talents which had wowed the world in those two showdowns nine years before. Even if the already twice retired Leonard coasted it you knew that their egos would eventually humiliate them. Their blades were blunted.
Twenty years on and McCoy’s knife can still shave an egg, that’s the wonder. Sport has seen many lasting talents down the years. For amazing, continued power and elegance few things have equalled 400 metre hurdler Ed Moses’ 122 race winning streak between 1977 and 1987. For sheer longevity there is nothing to match Ryan Giggs 672 first team appearances and 114 goals between 1990 and 2014 although there is a pretty good argument for Steve Redgrave’s five consecutive Olympic Golds between 1984 and 2000 or even Ben Ainslie’s sailing record of one silver and four Golds between 1996 and 2012. For simple physical magnificence nothing beats Usain Bolt, so much so that when close up to him in Beijing it was all I could do to stop myself running a hand along his back and down his quarters as you do when alongside a four legged thoroughbred. But McCoy is something different to all of them.
There have been times, especially after that dreadful Cheltenham fall which put him into intensive care two years ago, when you felt as if there was a touch of caution to his expertise. There were fears, especially in this quarter, that announcing his departure with two full riding months to ride throughwould weaken his commitment or nerve-wrack his personality as the safety of the exit door moved closer. How wrong we faint-hearts have proved to be.
The early announcement has been a triumph. Everywhere A.P. has gone has been the best type of farewell visit. The kind, generous, funny, self-deprecatory part of his character so long hidden in the ferocious mask of full commitment has been ever present as he has done endless interviews and signed thousand and thousands of autographs. Better still, the performances on the track have been anything but the easy knockabout normally associated with “goodbye tours.”
On the Friday at Aintree I went down to watch him at the last fence in the first two races on the Mildmay course. In 24 hours he was due to ride the favourite in his last Grand National. A tiny touch of prudence on the agenda? Not a trace of it as first on Carole’s Destrier and then even more so on Don Cossack, he clamped in and down and pumped and asked his horse over. This was right back to Mr Mulligan time. This was the greatest of champions stating that he was going out with everything intact.
A.P.McCoy may not have the hand eye talents or athletic attributes of other contenders for the greatest sportsman of our time. But, with no apologies at repetition, for sheer sustained, consistent ever-improving, day-by-day, edge-of-impact, mental and physical excellence and daring, A.P. has set a standard never matched, never likely to be matched, anywhere, anytime.
No one else gets close.