Does this man need a BBC gong to complete his life's work?
Tony McCoy claims he relies on will not skill and says the award is only in winning races, writes Paul Hayward
Published 19/12/2010 | 05:00
In the front room of Tony McCoy's home near Lambourn there are 16 'Lesters' -- Oscars, awarded by the Jockeys' Association -- and 12 prizes from racing writers. Only on the Barcelona stadium tour would you see more silver. Tonight, he is favourite to win the BBC's award for the outstanding athlete in British life.
McCoy would like to win. His sport has been campaigning for his election, renaming races in his honour, erecting cardboard cut-outs on racetracks and subjecting him to a non-stop round of interviews intended to acquaint the uninitiated with his brilliance, modesty and indefatigability, all of which are as real as Cleeve Hill, the imposing back-drop to Cheltenham.
But for his own pleasures the most prolific of all National Hunt riders sees beyond mini statues. "The award is only in winning the race," he says, back home after riding at Bangor on Dee. Then he tells a story that nails the point. It starts with the racing writers this month asking trainer Jonjo O'Neill and owner JP McManus, who retains McCoy, to release him from two minor rides so he can motor to London to collect their award. The conversation unfolded with Gee Armytage, who handles his diary.
"A few of them rang up Gee and said: 'If we ring Jonjo and JP, will he have the day off?' Gee said: 'If you ring God and organise it, then maybe. It's like this: in his head he doesn't get to any awards ceremonies if he doesn't do his job.' For me the award is winning, all day long," said McCoy. "It's the same with the Sports Journalists' Association award [which he won 11 days ago]. I was delighted I was able to go, because everyone who writes in sport voted that award for me. Of all the awards I've got, that is the greatest, because all those people watch all those other sports.
"But it was the same scenario. I said to Gee: 'I can't go.' I was delighted the racing was off, because I knew nobody else was going to be winning. But while I thought there was going to be racing on, I said to Gee: 'I can't go to it'."
The telling phrase there is: "I knew nobody else was going to be winning."
This is one of many insights into the demonic intensity that has rendered the northern Irishman unreachable at the head of the jump jockeys' table for 15 seasons and landed him more than 3,350 winners. At 36 he is the only active jockey to have won the Grand National, Gold Cup and Champion Hurdle. His victory at Aintree this year on Don't Push It offered racing its excuse to bombard BBC viewers, even though any half-sentient follower of sport knows McCoy needs no Sunday night light entertainment show to affirm his greatness.
Don't Push It? This is precisely what racing is doing, partly for the publicity but also because many in jump racing can no longer bear the wider sporting public to remain immune to McCoy's appeal. But let the truth call out. 'AP' is going along with his own election campaign out of kindness towards the sport that blessed his life.
"I said it was a bit embarrassing in one interview, so my wife gave out to me for using the word 'embarrassing'. In all honesty I do feel a bit embarrassed but I probably feel awkward more than anything," he says. "They've all got huge expectations. For me the other sports have got bigger profiles. It's all very well thinking how great our sport is -- and it is -- but it's a minority sport.
"It was all Racing for Change. This is no disrespect but, as much as the Grand National was the greatest single day in my racing life, by a million miles, I still think my greatest ever achievement was breaking Gordon Richards' record [for the number of winners in a season]. For that I was lucky to finish third [in the 2002 BBC poll]. From the public perspective the Grand National is the biggest horse race in the world and a lot more people saw me winning the Grand National than breaking Gordon Richards' record.
"He was the winning-most jockey of all time, flat and jumps. Even more than Lester Piggott. The only one to have more winners than Lester Piggott. He was 26 times champion jockey. His record was there for 55 years. For me that's enough said. However much luck I need to win the National, to break a record like his I needed so much more. I needed the winter to be good, I needed not to get injured or suspended and I needed to be riding for somebody who had a factory of winners, which Martin Pipe had at the time. That was my best ever achievement in racing."
So would victory tonight mean less if it felt like the product of a marketing blitz? "It's not really my thing. But I get the impression people in racing think it would be a great thing for racing, as no racing person has ever won the award. And again that's something I feel awkward about, I mentioned Lester Piggott and Frankie [Dettori], who are the biggest stars we've ever had -- Lester in the saddle and Frankie in and out of it. Realistically if they're not capable of winning it, I shouldn't be."
Behind the hustings can be found the real tale of a winter warrior who learned to master pain, has transcended an obsession with statistics and can now enjoy success more than in the days when he would come home grumpy and immediately review a losing ride for clues to self-improvement.
First, the pain, and McCoy's talent for ignoring the sirens telling him not to mount the horse, not to throw himself at fences and hurdles on unreliable creatures in winter's depths. "In my opinion the power of the mind in sport is vital," he starts out. "If you can overpower those physical risks mentally, you can get your body round it physically. I've made my body do things because of my mind that it shouldn't have been able to do."
The room falls silent while he measures his words. "I know that I've ridden before with broken bones." He looks half surprised by the admission and a bit ashamed. "That's all mental. Same in any sport. The mental side is the same for all those on the [BBC] list. When they go home at night and they're not performing, it wrecks their heads, just as it wrecks mine.
"That strength of mind: I think it depends on how much you achieve -- or how much you want to achieve. I'm not talking about the financial reward. I mean the reward of winning. If you've got a regular feed of winners you control your mind to do it. It becomes a must.
"If you didn't have that regular flow of winning, whether you could get yourself to do that I don't know. It's a lot easier when you know the next day you can win and you can win and win, it's worth doing it."
But to be the unassailable weighing room emperor for so long inflicts its own haunting pressure not to be deposed, and to find a way of ending it that is free of indignity and regret. McCoy thinks of this a lot. "When you do get there [to the undisputed No 1 spot] you live in constant fear of not being as good today as you were yesterday. And the worst thing about it is that in racing it's a daily thing, not even a weekly thing. It's always there.
"For eight or 10 years I got wrapped up in chasing records. Everything was a number. Didn't matter what I won, it was a number. Every horse I rode was a number. I wouldn't say I punished myself but I had to make myself suffer for it not happening. I'd come home and watch it. I'd think, 'What are you doing? It's gone.'
"I was so wrapped up in beating Peter Scudamore's record for the number of winners by a jump jockey in a season, and Richard Dunwoody's for the most winners by a jump jockey. At the time you enjoy winning, you enjoy crossing the line, but by the time you take the saddle off it's gone. It's a number and it's about the next one -- whereas now I let myself enjoy it a lot more and I never get as down as I used to, I never punish myself the way I used to."
More words have been expended about Tony McCoy and the nature of his obsession than there are in the yearly form book but there is a breadth to his intelligence and his interest in psychology that take him way beyond myopia and addiction. When he scans the other BBC contenders, he looks for more than dedication and considers his own pre-eminence in the light of more obviously skilful endeavour.
"I think I'm skilful enough but I don't consider myself a naturally talented, gifted sports person," he says -- a big evening meal a distant dream, even though the clock is nudging 8pm. "I've probably got a lot more will than I have skill. At the same time I am a sports fan and, though I'm not a big tennis fan, I love watching Roger Federer. [Rafael] Nadal is more of a 'will' player. But I'm much more of a Federer fan.
"It's the same with snooker, I'm not much of a follower but I love watching Ronnie [O'Sullivan] playing snooker, because he's got all the skill in the world. I should be more of a Nadal fan. Federer has won 16 majors but, if Nadal beats that record, I'll probably say: 'Well, I'll have him, then.' I'm a bit fickle.
"There are a lot of people out there who have done amazingly well because of their willpower, more than their skill; and I see the opposite, people with lots of skill but mentally I don't think they have the drive they should have. I had a huge advantage in my education, in the people I started to work for. I worked for people -- Jim Bolger was one -- who were tough task masters but taught you all the right things, never let you get in a position where you were going to think you were above your station. For all sorts of reasons now people have it easier. I see young lads turn up at the races in their BMWs and that's a car I was definitely not lucky enough to be driving round in at that age."
In the race itself: "Something happens. You just don't see anything else." The capacity to function under extreme duress is so pronounced in McCoy that you wonder where all that courage and energy will go when he gives up on jump racing, or jump racing gives up on him.
Beyond his house, as the Valley of the Racehorse hunkers down for the night, I mention those who go out unvanquished: Joe Calzaghe or Rocky Marciano. The champion jockey titles will end for him, as they must, but how?
"I hope it will end with me walking away. I've always been quite conscious of sports people who've been at the top and walk away. With Calzaghe it's something I really admire him for.
"I said to someone the other day I'd like to stop, then come back three months later as someone else and have another go as that person. I have a thing about carrying on too long. I couldn't cope if it was taken away and I hadn't walked away."
You think this man needs a BBC gong to complete his life's work?