HORSE AND HOUND COLUMN – 06-01-2011
The last doubt is always the greatest. As Freddie Flintoff announced Darts legend Phil Taylor as taking second place in the BBC Sports Personality of The Year poll, the feeling in our seats looking out over Birmingham’s vast NEC Arena was suddenly one of foreboding. After all the anticipation might AP McCoy be about to receive the public snub of not even making the first three?
He may have been odds on favourite by the bookmakers, racing may have produced everything from cardboard cut outs to “Vote, Vote, Vote” announcements on the tannoy, at Racing Post we even brought a book out on him. But in the three minutes it took for Phil Taylor to receive his congratulations and Freddie Flintoff to open the final envelope all the doubts of the popularity of horse sports in general and racing in particular welled in the throat almost to choking point.
Britain has changed so hugely since these awards started way back in 1954 with show jumping Pat Smythe being third to Chris Chataway and Roger Bannister. I well remember how massive a place show jumping had in the public consciousness. It was the only live sport with regular events (Royal International Horse Show and Horse of The Year Show) on evening prime time TV and it was no great surprise when a 20 year old David Broome was the 1960 SPOTY winner even though he and Sunsalve had only won Bronze at that summer’s Rome Olympics. With so little network coverage, what chance of a show jumper ever being a BBC winner once more?
True Princess Anne (1971) and Zara Phillips (2006) have become the only mother and daughter pair, as well as the only eventers to triumph but, much to their considerable annoyance, their high polling was probably aided by their family connections as well as their undoubted brilliance in the saddle. This year William Fox Pitt was in the NEC audience but his “annus mirabilis” did not even make it to the short list. Sure McCoy’s Grand National victory had been watched by multi-million audience but even that had seemed rather a long time ago during his slightly dull interview on stage half an hour before Flintoff did the honours. Lee Westwood had been hailed as “the best golfer on the planet”. How could a jockey compare to that?
Now Freddie was looking at the card and when the words “A.P.McCoy” were read out I shed an unashamed tear – tears of relief but also of realisation. For the doubts had been real, and AP’s long overdue success in a year when no footballer even got nominated should not blind us to the difficulties of relating horse sports to the wider public. It was a sobering thought that whilst amongst the finalists there was probably no other sport in which McCoy would not have loved to excel, none of the others would have returned the feeling with the possible exception of cyclist Mark Cavendish.
Riding in general and being a jockey in particular is not a sporting activity to which many present day Britons aspire and it is partly our own fault. Sure we have lost network TV and newspaper coverage as the major sports have asserted themselves but we have also rarely lost an opportunity for running ourselves down. We may not compare well enough as armchair theatre but we offer an involvement second to none.
Yet when horse people get together they far too soon revert to wrangling amongst each other or of proclaiming how hard a life they lead, how early they get up, how cold are their mornings, how few their holidays, how low their returns. In this New Year it’s high time we realised the plus sides of having horses in our lives, of the benefits of the daily challenge, of the open air, of the sense of wonder when you suddenly appreciate that you are the top half of a centaur.
McCoy’s award as BBC Sports Personality of The Year should not just be a cue for racing to loosen up but for the whole horse world too. Remember the most consistent reason that he gives for living the life he does? Because he loves it. So should we.