HORSE AND HOUND COLUMN, January 27 2012
Rage or reason? There is no doubting the sensible approach when a jockey gets hurt but the moment AP McCoy takes the rational line to his latest injury, the word is out that he is going soft. It was ever thus.
However much a great champion may refine his technique, research his rides and re-boot his own fitness, in the end the awe he carries with him revolves round the memories of him raging at the very prospect of defeat and of injury too. As the watershed age of 40 closes in the champion becomes like the old wolf in the Jungle Book who struggles to make his kill. And when, like 38 year old McCoy, you have not made one of those since being kicked along the ground at Taunton on December 30th, the rest of the pack sniff the wind in wonder if the unthinkable might finally be going to happen.
Time was when AP lived in complete denial of medical orthodoxy. Most famously when he got back up and rode three winners after breaking his collar bone one afternoon at Kempton in February 2003. It was part of the legend around him but his excellent and revealing autobiography relates how two full days of defying pain only delayed healing and even though he then took a brief holiday in Dubai that year’s Cheltenham was a three fall disaster which ended in the collar bone going yet again. After the rib busting battering he took at Taunton he had three days in hospital and has recuperated in the Barbados sun. In his Telegraph column on Saturday he related how he was going to take another full week to make himself not just fit but fall proof. The headline screamed “I can’t bear the thought of another fall.” Then the rage began.
Well a “Twitter” rage at least. The old wolf resented the suggestion that he might be losing his appetite for the kill. “What a stupid headline,” he Tweeted, “I will never turn off race riding, it’s the buzz.” It is. But it is also a form of madness which is not only impossible for outsiders to rationalize but is often pretty difficult for insiders too. For every jump jockey there comes a time when the game looks likely to take more out of you than you take from it. With 174 winners, still 62 clear of Richard Johnson, it is hard to argue that AP is entirely without hope. But it can be pitiful to sit with jockeys who appear to be denying the dying of the light. Pitiful but not always right.
Two years ago Jonathan Powell and I, as chairman and vice chairman of the Injured Jockeys Fund, sat in a darkened room with a young man whose long standing head injury looked as if retirement was a most necessary option. With wins at Aintree and Cheltenham he had built a reputation both as a rider and as a personable guy. He was well connected enough to be supported in any fresh venture. We pleaded with him to do the sensible thing. Five months later he came back with a first time winner at Cheltenham. At Ascot the superb race that Dominic Elsworth rode to win the Victor Chandler Chase showed how we doubters were wrong.
Mind you the pair of us had some “previous” and are never likely to “better” the fairytale finish of the 1981 Grand National. In the previous 12 months we had sat with each of the first three jockeys and explained why they were mad to continue race riding. But no pair had more tears of joy and wonder when Bob Champion on Aldaniti came back from cancer to beat 54 year old John Thorne on his own Spartan Missile with the future sculptor Philip Blacker a most honourable third on Royal Admiral .
The truth is that if one was going to be wholly sensible, you would never do race riding at all. This does not mean that all involved should not strive for ever higher standards of fitness and medical assessment which AP himself is now embracing. But in the end I like to resort to the lines from Longfellow:
“’Ask not’ the helmsman answered, ‘the secrets of the sea. Only those that brave its dangers can comprehend its mystery.’”