Monday 25 September 2017

McCoy profile: I think I'm unbreakable

British champion jockey AP McCoy suffers a crashing fall on board Wanango in 2008
British champion jockey AP McCoy suffers a crashing fall on board Wanango in 2008

Tony McCoy once said "I think I'm unbreakable" - but that is certainly not a comment that applies to any riding records we have ever seen when it comes to the iron-willed magician of the saddle.

Getting to 1,000 winners in a career in Britain seemed out of reach for jump jockeys until Stan Mellor broke the mould when reaching four figures on Ouzo at Nottingham in December 1971.

So who could possibly have thought, nearly 40 years later, that figure would be quadrupled as McCoy, 39, bagged his 4,000th over jumps in Britain and Ireland.

There is no question that jumping has moved on since Mellor was in the saddle. Brilliant champions such as Jonjo O'Neill, John Francome, Peter Scudamore and Richard Dunwoody have all given the sport a push, but McCoy has taken the profession to a higher level and achieved a level of dominance rarely seen in competitive sport.

With an unparalleled determination to succeed in every race, whether it be a selling hurdle at Newton Abbot or the Cheltenham Gold Cup, McCoy has rewritten virtually every record in the book, some more than once.

From his 1994/5 debut season in Britain, McCoy has ruled the National Hunt game, bagging title after title to make him undisputed champion for the last 18 years, smashing records along the way and bouncing back from some serious spills with the minimum of fuss.

Other notable landmarks include the most successful season in history, an amazing 289 winners in 2001/2, and the overtaking of Dunwoody's all-time record total of 1,699 winners on Mighty Montefalco at Uttoxeter on August 27, 2002, to become the winning-most jump jockey in British history.

He completed a career total of 1,000 winners in December 1999 and it had taken just over five years, which was more than five years quicker than the previous best. His 1,500th came just two years later.

The Ulsterman has won the biggest races, too, landing the rare Cheltenham Gold Cup/Champion Hurdle double on Mr Mulligan and Make A Stand in 1997 and the King George VI Chase on Best Mate in 2002. Binocular, Brave Inca and the ill-fated Synchronised have also added championship laurels at the biggest meeting of all.

And Edredon Bleu's win in the 2000 Queen Mother Champion Chase was hailed as one of the great finishes of all, as McCoy's mount edged the gallant Direct Route.

In April 2002, McCoy overtook Sir Gordon Richards' record seasonal tally of 269 on Valfonic at Warwick, an achievement that helped him gain third place in the BBC Sports Personality of the Year voting.

However, his Grand National victory aboard Don't Push It in 2010 not only ended his 15-year hoodoo in the race, but also saw him transcend the boundaries of the sport and become the first jockey to win the coveted BBC prize. It meant even more that he did it in the green and gold colours of his great friend and supporter, JP McManus.

McCoy certainly has had advantages over his predecessors, such as the extra winning opportunities offered by summer jumping and the recent trend for milder winters but he also had the perfect background for a champion.

His father Peadar may have been a joiner by profession but, like many in the Emerald Isle, he kept a few horses "as a hobby", his 'hobby' horses having included future Cheltenham Festival winner Thumbs Up.

McCoy junior was schooling jumpers, a job calling for strength and experience rather than youth and enthusiasm, by the age of 13 and soon realised his future lay in racing.

He began spending weekends working for local trainer the late Willie Rock, leading up horses ridden by Charlie Swan and Conor O'Dwyer.

And at 15 he quit school, to his mother's displeasure, and headed south from County Antrim to join Jim Bolger's stable on the Curragh.

McCoy was soon riding work on the likes of Classic winners St Jovite and Jet Ski Lady.

Though he still saw himself as a jump jockey in the making, his new boss wanted him to stick to the Flat and was reluctant to let him ride over hurdles, refusing him any mounts over fences.

McCoy got what he sees as a "lucky break" - literally, as it turns out - when he broke his left leg, causing his weight to balloon and forcing even Bolger to concede his future lay over the sticks.

Soon after came the opening that has allowed him to set the British racing world alight.

In the summer of 1994, Eddie Harty engineered a meeting between the youngster looking for a chance and British trainer Toby Balding, who was seeking a conditional jockey.

Balding had struck lucky in Ireland two years earlier by snapping up a youth called Adrian Maguire, who turned out to be one of the biggest riding talents of the decade.

He was prepared to take a chance on McCoy, who had ridden only seven winners over jumps, on the recommendation of the man who rode his Grand National winner Highland Wedding.

McCoy was keen to grab the opportunity, recognising that following in such famous footsteps would earn him the publicity which could open doors elsewhere.

But it soon became clear that the young man in a hurry would generate his own publicity on the track.

He took to British racing straight away and rode 74 winners in his first season, running away with the conditional jockeys' championship.

Many a young rider struggles once losing his right to claim, and fails to confirm the promise of his early career. But not McCoy.

Brave as they come, he is a man with an iron will, and an iron constitution. That fact was never better illustrated than early in 2008.

McCoy had been out of action since fracturing two vertebrae in a crashing fall at Warwick on January 12 and faced a serious race against time to be back to ride at the Cheltenham Festival, jump racing's showcase event.

But he went to extreme lengths to ensure his recovery, including spending time enduring temperatures of minus 150 degrees during revolutionary kriotherapy treatment.

It was during his recovery that he memorably remarked: "I think I'm unbreakable so I wasn't lying there thinking the worst, you can't think like that."

Sure enough, he made it back to the saddle with a few days to spare.

Convention dictates there is only so long a rider can keep bouncing back, and McCoy admitted at the beginning of the year that the 4,000-winner mark was his most pressing goal. Not that convention has ever been his watch-word, of course.

Retirement is not on the cards just yet, so what next, with the big 4-0 just around the corner? Well, never one to rest on his laurels, he has mentioned surpassing his old ally Martin Pipe, who sent out nearly 4,200 winners as a trainer, many of them with McCoy on top when they were almost an unstoppable partnership.

McCoy has now set the bar so high, only a superhuman effort will see someone top his latest landmark. It is unimaginable. Unbreakable, you might say.

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