Monday 21 August 2017

Genius cannot be ranked in black-and-white terms

Comparing McCoy and Walsh is a futile exercise that sweeps over the finer details, writes Ian McClean

Ian McClean

Few issues are as contentious in racing as jockeys and their rides. Unrestricted by inside information or anything that creates an elite viewpoint, opinions on jockeys and their rides are like bellybuttons -- everybody's got one.

In a sport characterised by uncertainty, one thing is certain: visit any betting shop anywhere on any day and you are guaranteed an opinion, usually very vocal, on the ride this jockey has just given that horse. Typically embraced in expletive, the outburst can occasionally be one of awe, depending on the outcome for the punter who has just experienced racing's equivalent of the Big Dipper condensed into a few short moments. Fuelled by emotion, punters are inevitably speaking through their pockets and comments are unlikely to be quoted in the media, no matter how controversial.

However, when the owner of Kauto Star remarks of his 11-year-old in the King George that "he didn't quite get to his fences in the usual way" there is uproar. In a very English way Clive Smith's remark is a euphemism for 'bad ride' and in spite of the fact he went on to claim, "I'm not criticising Tony McCoy," the owner attracted a fair degree of criticism of his own for what was plainly a questioning of McCoy's suitability to his horse, encapsulated in his conclusion that McCoy has "a different style to Ruby Walsh and maybe that showed".

There are two basic issues at play here. Firstly, we live in a world increasingly dominated by a media determined to dumb down its complexity (seen the new Morning Line format?) with a diet of soundbites. The soundbite era means that things are either good or bad, right or wrong, black or white, with little exploration of the grey in between.

The second issue, linked to this, is that it makes no allowances for situational factors. Applied to tennis it would lead to the assertion that Federer is a better player than Nadal (or vice versa). This is a simple binary comparison which doesn't take into account whether the match is being played on grass or clay. (Federer is currently 7/4 to win Wimbledon 2011, but 5/1 to win at Roland Garros).

Deciding whether McCoy is a better jockey than Walsh may make for amusement in a bar or a betting shop, but firm conclusion is devoid of any absolute truth. They are two of the finest riders ever in the long history of jump racing. They will both win almost all of the time when on the best horse in the race, and sometimes when they are not.

However, brilliantly effective as they equally are, their styles are contrasting. AP is animation; Ruby is stealth. And each style is marginally more suited to one situation or horse over another.

McCoy's animation is what makes him the punters' pal with over 3,300 winners. His 'animation' is what famously and regularly turns the impossible into the achievable. Earlier this season, he goaded Drill Sergeant at Haydock from virtually pulling up passing the stands (matched at 999/1 in running) into unlikely victory.

Last Thursday at Warwick, he illuminated a slate-grey afternoon by encouraging Folie A Deux from an impossible position (£142 matched again at 999/1 in running). Detached at half-way in a two-mile chase, the commentator described him as a "weary last". Yet the horse somehow (commentator again) "caught his rider's mood" before the second last and still with the whole field to pass after the last, got up to win on the nod. It is doubtful any other jockey would have won on Folie A Deux, but it doesn't make McCoy a better jockey than Ruby Walsh. It is just that in that type of situation the McCoy proposition is the one for the job.

A certain food critic routinely informs his restaurant when he makes his reservation that he is making an assessment. I wondered at the wisdom of this as surely the restaurant will make an extra special attempt to mask their frailties. My critic's response was simple: "It is possible for a good restaurant to serve a bad meal but impossible for a bad restaurant to serve a good one." AP served up his signature dish at Warwick on Thursday but had, by his own admission, cooked a bad meal last Saturday at Ascot on Master Minded, in spite of victory. The champion remarked afterwards to Paul Nicholls, "I'll tell you when I've given one a good ride and I'll tell you when it's a bad ride and that was a bad ride". Which is all very refreshing in our age of over-simplification when a good ride is simply a winning one and a bad ride a loser.

Whilst on the subject of McCoy and Nicholls, AP will again admit his finest hour didn't arrive in February last year when he and Denman got crossed wires in the Aon Chase. Yet he went on to give him a signature ride to finish a fantastic second in the Gold Cup and then went on to give Denman what owner Harry Findlay describes as "the ride of a lifetime" to finish fourth at Punchestown where the horse hung like a gate for the whole three miles yet was still in with a chance at the last.

So Kauto Star's well-being on the day aside, Clive Smith's broader point is well made, as was his conclusion: "It's very hard to get on a horse like Kauto and ride to suit him."

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