The Grand National takes you to places other races cannot reach. Yesterday it took A.P.McCoy to the one racing spot he has never been. And it showed.
As he and Don’t Push It came past us with just 100 yards between him and that so elusive Grand National glory, he was the very, punching, driving,
face-set embodiment of the most implacable jockey that any of us have ever seen. Seconds later he was taking the high handshake congratulations of his fellow jockey and then as he was led back towards the massed grandstand the real magnitude hit him. He held both hands high in triumph and the roar he gave came sweeping back down from the crowd like a crashing, swamping avalanche of happiness. This is what his life had been lived for.
The roar swept down again and again in tribute as it recognized quite what a sporting moment had been laid before us. 18 years since a baby faced McCoy rode his first winner at Thurles in his native Ireland, 15 since his opening Grand National ride fell on the first circuit, 14 since he started the unbroken championship run of 3,000 winners and counting, Anthony Peter McCoy from Moneyglass in County Antrim had nailed the one prize that has always ESCAPED him. And to think the horse was called “Don’t Push It.”
Because McCoy’s dedication is something much more than masochistic self-denial. At 12 years old and only five stone heavy he was peddling a dozen miles to ride and master the big steeplechasers at local trainer Willie Rock. At 16 he broke his leg so badly one winter morning that the bone stuck out through the skin and by the time he got back his weight had shot up and every day onwards would be a battle with the scales. But he had already done the deal with himself.
He first told it to me driving to Wincanton 14 years ago this January. “Winning,” he said quietly as he hurled the car westwards, “is the only thing that counts. That’s the whole fun, the whole point of it.” He was tall, polite, and a bit spotty and you could not fail to be hit the intensity. But he had set himself on the most brutal daily anvil in sport. It breaks everybody in the end. You feared it would break him too.
That fear will always remain but we have got used to him not just rewriting the record books but in analysing and even mocking his own motives. Searching for him at Stratford Races on the hottest day of last summer was to find him, of all places, in the sauna. He recognized the absurdity with a gaunt smile but said, “I have never put up overweight in my career and am not going to start now.” With a brilliant, up-the-inside move, he then won a hurdle race at the absolute other end of the scale to yesterday’s triumph but sitting in his palatial new home looking down on the Lambourn Valley next morning,( his face still white with the wasting) he would not belittle the achievement. “It may have been a little thing,” he said, “but it mattered. Riding winners is what I live for. I enjoyed it.”
That overwhelming sense of seven day a week commitment allied to the forceful front running style associated with his early years as champion trainer Martin Pipe’s jockey led some to think that McCoy lacked a wider dimension both as a man and as a rider. But his acceptance of an overall retainer from multi millionaire Irish patron JP McManus led to the challenge of riding in many different styles of which the achievement of getting the physically and mentally flawed Don’t Push It through the Aintree ordeal was only the latest example.
“He’s a bit of a mental case,” A.P. said afterwards of the horse who has to be exercised on his own and spends most of the time out in the field, “and so am I so I guess we were suited. But,” he added looking across at McManus sitting next to him, “I am a very privileged man to win it in the colours of this man, the greatest supporter of jump racing there ever has or ever will be. In the race I hadn’t gone a mile when I wouldn’t have swopped my position for anything, and I don’t just mean horses. At least I can now think I have done alright as a jockey now. Jonjo is an amazing trainer – he was very adamant I should ride Don’t Push It – and for once I had the brains not to argue with him.”
Tributes made, the sense of humour which lurks surprisingly close to the hatchet faced surface, broke through. “The great thing about JP is that he has an almost worse record round here than me (44 losers before Don’t Push It) and Jonjo was not much better (actually worse, 15 losers as a trainer and 7 as a jockey none of which even got round.)”
It was a small audience in the press room but McCoy was well aware that he was talking about much wider things, of how the Grand National was the people’s race, of how his young daughter might one day come to realize that he had actually done something to make her proud, of how NOW in the words of the song “no one can take this away from me.”
Looking at him was to remember that avalanche of applause crashing down from the very tops of the grandstand. It had recognized what we could see before us. Not just the greatest jockey that we have ever seen but the finest sportsmen currently operating in any discipline anywhere.
Have a think of what 3,000 winners and 14 consecutive championships have involved. And when you have swerved away from contemplating the attrition down the years just replay what happened yesterday. A life in a race, a sport in a life, a man called A.P.McCoy doing what destiny decreed.