Don’t ever underestimate what happened on Saturday. As McCoy looked up at the stands and pumped his fists high in triumph he sealed a pact not just between himself and his sport but between that sport and the nation. For now the world could truly see the diamond we have at the very heart of things.
The crowd sensed it too. The roars that echoed around Aintree had a unique sound in them – one not just of salute but of recognition. In 40 years of reporting at Liverpool and much further afield I have never heard the like of it- not at Twickenham or Wembley, not when Ballesteros walked up the 18th at St Andrews or even when Usain Bolt trotted round the stadium that first incredible night in Beijing. For in none of those other places was there quite such a sense of how much of a life had been on the line.
True Frankie Dettori was also on his 15th attempt when he won the Derby on Authorized and at 36 was actually a year older than A.P. was yesterday. But for all Frankie’s popularity and his “to-hell-and-back” plane crash experience, there was not really the feeling that winning the Derby meant absolutely everything to him. With McCoy yesterday there was a nakedness about it. For fifteen astonishing, unbroken championship years he has become a byword for wanting to win in every race every day. Now we could see how he had wanted this one more than even all the rest.
Again he stood in his stirrups and punched the air, again the cheers thundered down and with them the remembrance of all that he has put himself through to ride those three thousand winners and more especially all that has happened in this most public of stages. Seven times he has hit the floor in his National attempts and almost every one of the thousands in the stands and the tens of millions watching around the globe will have seen a glimpse of the most famous drama when the loose horse wiped out AP and Clan Royal right on the brink of take-off at Bechers five years ago.
The Grand National is the one time when racing invites the world in and over the years it has been able to share our own fascination that McCoy, the most implacable, self flagellating competitor in any sport could also somehow be a decent, and surprisingly funny human being as well. As the tributes flooded in yesterday outsiders could see what we have now known for sometime – that his opponents don’t just admire A.P. as a practitioner, they like him as a man.
When, after the presentations he came through for the press conference even the most hardened of hacks stood up to cheer him. For we know too that McCoy does not play cheap shots. Whenever he can be he is helpful. He is an example not just to the rest of racing but to sport itself. How important do you have to be not to answer a sensible question? How tough not to be able be generous to your fellow players? How grand to not let little defeats also matter.
As he talked there was an extraordinary sense of fulfilment in his voice. Of how this was the one race which involved everyone, how proud it would make everyone who had helped him along the way, how it might even one day get through to his still Ruby-worshipping daughter Eve. But there was something more than this one race, even those fifteen championships about his satisfaction. In the last month he had won two and been second in the third of the three greatest races of the jumping season. He was speaking from the very top of his personal mountain and the view was great.
Yet the very wonder brings the worry with it. Because you have to ask not how much higher but for how long? For not even McCoy’s remarkable physique and indomitable will can last into his 40s and so the shadows of his career were lengthening in that Aintree sun. He is far too positive to allow that to pass his lips, did you see him on that hurdler at Southwell yesterday? But part of the public reaction yesterday was because they recognized those shadows too.
Which leaves them one last challenge ahead. Last Wednesday a small but very special group gathered together in Yarmouth, Isle of Wight to salute the 80th birthday of the rugby and wider sporting legend that is Cliff Morgan. Amongst those present was Henry Cooper and Mary Peters, winners of the BBC Sports Personality of the Year in 1967, 1970 and 1972. They both won their awards from the public not just for what they did but for what they were. When we talked of the Grand National, they both asked about McCoy. They did not say it but they know, we know, and the world should know that he belongs amongst their number.
For what happened on Saturday should be celebrated not just by racing but by the whole sporting world. It is now not only us who can be proud of him.