Thursday 20 October 2016

McCoy's absence leaves gaping void that will never be filled

Published 31/12/2015 | 02:30

Tony McCoy has swapped the racecourse for the golf course (Photo: Getty)
Tony McCoy has swapped the racecourse for the golf course (Photo: Getty)

Even in his departure, AP McCoy changed the game.

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During 20 years of relentless, uninterrupted dominance, racing's most successful jump jockey transformed his profession from within. He changed attitudes of and towards jockeys, raising standards to an unprecedented level and redefining what it is to be a committed professional.

Through his undying hunger and an unnatural defiance of an above-average pain threshold that would have already been synonymous with the vocation, McCoy elevated the sport to another realm. His absence, then, was always going to leave a gaping void.

This was a man who had changed the face of the sport, so his loss to it would leave it unrecognisable.

In 2016, for the first time since 1996, the British jump jockeys' trophy will have someone else's name on it.

Indeed, there will have to be a new trophy commissioned, as the British Horseracing Authority elected to award McCoy in perpetuity the one that he won perpetually.

It was a fitting tribute, because that is how deep McCoy's legacy runs. He owned the title - and now he is gone.

It is less than a year since the iconic figure from Moneyglass in Co Antrim made his intentions known live on Channel 4 after a typically valiant victory aboard Mr Mole at Newbury, but there remains a peculiar feel to the sport without the constancy of his feats. They were always there. He was never not champion.

The announcement, while a shock in its nature at the time, was not unexpected. It had been clear for some time that McCoy wouldn't be chasing the 5,000-winner landmark, and, when the quest for an elusive 300-winner season floundered after a record-breaking early salvo, many surmised that championship number 20 might be his last.


When he made his intentions known, though, it crystallised his status as one of Ireland's greatest sports people. Period.

Of those that departed their respective sporting arenas in 2015, only Henry Shefflin could rival him in stature. Inevitably, there is an inherent parochial limit to the recognition that Shefflin will achieve. McCoy eventually became a global phenomenon.

We might never see Shefflin's like again, but, without meaning to in any way degrade his accomplishments, we will never see another McCoy. That much is for certain, because he was a freak in terms of what he could forbear, both physically and mentally.

It should be physiologically impossible to remain injury-free for long enough to win 20 jump jockeys' titles in succession.

In reality, it is, but McCoy was so persistently driven by the fear of losing his crown that he went at it with a feverish gusto in the early months of the season, when most jockeys of his calibre are being selective and enjoying a little downtime. He never let up or let his focus slip.

The effect was twofold. On the one hand, he gave himself a mental edge over his rivals by sickening them from the get-go; on the other, he gave himself sufficient breathing space to absorb the losses in the event that he would suffer an injury.

It's not a strong enough analogy, but it would be like Shefflin playing in every minute of Kilkenny's National League games every year - and those of Ballyhale Shamrocks.

That never happened, because hunger, physical well-being and efficiency of performance are finite resources, even for an immortal of Shefflin's calibre.

Somehow, though, McCoy did it, year in, year out. From Plumpton to Perth and everywhere in between, he clocked up the miles on a daily basis in the search for one more win. From such ordinary opportunities, he fashioned something truly extraordinary.

He rode with broken bones, punctured lungs, stitches and smashed teeth, because he could never let up.

Maybe more accurately, he could have, but he didn't want to give anyone else a sniff. He simply never allowed himself to relent from the grind.

"Pain is temporary, losing is permanent," McCoy scoffed in the insightful documentary 'Being AP' that was released in the autumn.

"It is like being an addict; I'm an addict to my way of life, to horses, to winning, because it's a drug. It wears off and you have to go back chasing it. I'm an addict to winning - that's what it is all about. The adrenalin is in winning."

After his glorious swansong at Sandown, one that movingly reduced the closest thing that he had to a nemesis in Richard Johnson to tears after he won the race in which McCoy signed off, the departing hero declared: "I am a has-been. A retired sportsman. I may as well go away and die now."


He was joking, but such was the ferocity with which McCoy lived his competitive life that you can be sure that - to him - it will have felt like there was some truth in what he was saying. What was left to achieve now?

This was the same single-minded mentality that had for so long, as he so candidly revealed in his penultimate autobiography, reduced his wife Chanelle to a subordinate role in his life. It was always evident in the categorical manner in which McCoy spoke of defeat and disappointments.

As someone who had won so much and had so much to be thankful for, it hinted a selfish, one-dimensional view of his own existence that didn't sit all too easily with some outsiders looking in.

This correspondent has previously related in these pages how, at a time when we shared a place in the weigh room, a statement that he made revealed to me the cavernous difference between us.

"All that matters to me in life is riding winners," he said in an interview at the time.

That's not all that matters to me, I vividly remember thinking. In all likelihood, it isn't all that matters for most jockeys, but it was a line that cut straight to the essence of McCoy's very being at the time. His dedication was absolute.

No one else possessed the same unambiguous approach, the same tunnel vision.

From the moment that McCoy burst on to the scene as a conditional rider with Toby Balding, he rode like his life depended on it. That's what set him apart.

It was never that he was just better or more talented than everyone else. He simply wanted it more than everyone else.

You could maybe match him for ability, but no one matched his ambition and his Spartan devotion to the cause over such a prolonged period.

In clocking up 4,358 winners, a memorable Grand National triumph on Don't Push It in 2010, two Gold Cup successes, three Champion Hurdles and a grand total of 31 Cheltenham Festival winners, McCoy did it all, over and over.

It took a while, but, in the end, his brilliance was recognised beyond the confines of the racing pages. He took the game to the sports pages and far beyond, a point highlighted by the acclaim that he generated in his adopted homeland across the water.

Following his Grand National victory, in 2010 he became racing's first recipient of the BBC Sports Personality of the Year award.

Whatever your take on that distinction, he was just the second Irish man to achieve the feat, emulating his fellow northerner, Barry McGuigan.

This year, he received a Lifetime Achievement award at the same ceremony.

Maybe even more remarkably, in March the 'Daily Telegraph' had him at number one on their list of the top 10 greatest living sports people in the UK. Ahead of Steve Redgrave and Bobby Charlton, if you don't mind.

Alex Ferguson wasn't included in the Telegraph's top 10, but jump racing without McCoy is a bit like Man United without the abrasive Scot. It's not the same - and it never will be again.


Born: May 4, 1974.

Born: May 4, 1974.

Father: Peadar McCoy, bred County Hurdle winner Thumbs Up.

Apprenticeship: Four years with Jim Bolger – rode work on horses such as Irish Derby winner St Jovite and Oaks winner Jet Ski Lady.

First winner: Legal Steps at Thurles on March 26, 1992.

Joins Toby Balding at start of 1994-95 season after riding 13 winners (six on the Flat) in Ireland.

Joins Martin Pipe in 1996, an association which lasts eight years.

Appointed retained rider for millionaire owner JP McManus at the end of the 2003-04 campaign.

First winner in Britain: Chickabiddy at Exeter on September 7, 1994.

Champion conditional jockey: 1994-95 with 74 winners – at the time a record for the number of wins by a conditional jockey (he finishes seventh in the full jockeys’ championship).

Loses right to claim when he wins on Romany Creek at Nottingham on February 28, 1995.

Beats Sir Gordon Richards’ all-time record total of 269 winners in a season on Valfonic at Warwick on April 2, 2002.

Becomes all-time winning-most jumps jockey, beating Richard Dunwoody’s record of 1,699, when winning on Mighty Montefalco at Uttoxeter on August 27, 2002.

Champion jockey: 1995-96, 1996-97, 1997-98, 1998-99, 1999-2000, 2000-01, 2001-02, 2002-03, 2003-04, 2004-05, 2005-06, 2006-07, 2007-08, 2008-09, 2009-10, 2010-11, 2011-12, 2012-13, 2013-14, 2014-15.

Best season: 289 winners in 2001-02

1,000th winner: Majadou, Cheltenham, December 11, 1999.

1,500th winner: Celtic Native, Exeter, December, 2001.

1,700th winner (new record): Mighty Montefalco, Uttoxeter, August 27, 2002.

Awarded MBE in 2003, expected to be knighted in the upcoming Queen’s New Year’s Honours list.

2,000th winner: Magical Bailiwick, Wincanton, January 17, 2004.

3,000th winner over jumps in Britain and Ireland: Restless D’Artaix, Plumpton, February 9, 2009.

4,000th winner over jumps in Britain and Ireland: Mountain Tunes, Towcester, November 7, 2013.

4,192nd winner over jumps in Britain and Ireland: It’s A Gimme, Market Rasen, July 19, 2014. This takes him past his old ally Martin Pipe’s career total of winners.

Champion Hurdle winners: Make A Stand 1997, Brave Inca 2006, Binocular 2010.

Cheltenham Gold Cup winners: Mr Mulligan 1997, Synchronised 2012

Champion Chase winner: Edredon Bleu 2000.

King George VI Chase winner: Best Mate 2002.

Grand National winner: Don’t Push It 2010.

Rides 150th winner at Cheltenham on Hills Of Aran January 1, 2008.

Total career wins: 4,358.

Last jumps winner: Capard King at Ayr on April 17, 2015.

Last ride: Box Office at Sandown on April 25, 2015 (he does win on Gannicus in ‘Leger Legends’ race at Doncaster on September 9, 2015).

Career winners: 4,358

Centuries: 20

Double centuries: 9

Champion jockey titles: 20

Total number of weeks as champion: 1,040

Most winners in a season: 289

Cheltenham Festival wins: 31

Cheltenham Gold Cup wins: 2

Grand National wins: 1

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