Sport Horse Racing

Sunday 4 December 2016

Tears of a champion: No last-day fairytale but McCoy departs at the top

Eamonn Sweeney

Published 26/04/2015 | 10:02

A.P McCoy wipes away a tear after finishing third on the appropriately named Box Office in the Handicap Hurdle Race at Sandown Park yesterday afternoon in his last ever competitive race
A.P McCoy wipes away a tear after finishing third on the appropriately named Box Office in the Handicap Hurdle Race at Sandown Park yesterday afternoon in his last ever competitive race

You can't script sport. Had it been a soap opera, a novel or a movie there would have been only one possible dénouement at Sandown, Tony McCoy piloting Box Office to victory in the bet365 Hurdle as a capacity crowd, and everyone watching at home, went into transports of joy.

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Instead the favourite never really looked like winning and finished almost a dozen lengths behind the winner Brother Tedd, ridden by Richard Johnson, so often the runner-up to McCoy in the jockeys' championship. Sport can sometimes feel fonder of irony than it is of sentiment.

Yet, in an odd way, McCoy's fruitless final day, his other ride Mr Mole also finished third, bore eloquent witness to the magnitude of his achievement. It showed how hard it is for jockeys to win races.

For all the sentiment in the stands there was not an ounce of it inside the rails. His first race of the day had been renamed the AP McCoy Celebration Chase and Mr Mole looked a likely winner three out. Yet when push came to shove, Noel Fehily did his job and got Special Tiara home first. Fehily is Irish as is Special Tiara's trainer Henry de Bromhead. No-one loved AP more than his fellow countrymen and in years to come someone will probably say to Fehily, "You had a right to let McCoy win that day in Sandown," and mean well by it. But Fehily had no such right. That's the nature of the game.

There are no gimmes in National Hunt racing. That's why McCoy's 4,382 victories represent such a monumental tribute to his talent, dedication and durability. The great striker may hit a goal a game and the great fighter remain unbeaten or lose just a couple of times. But even the greatest jockeys lose more than they win. And Tony McCoy's losses were part of the tapestry of his career too just as his finale was a reminder of how far from Hollywood Sandown and Newbury and Chepstow and the rest of them really are.

In reply to a question from Alice Plunkett of Channel 4 Racing about her husband's career, Chanelle McCoy mentioned hot baths, hospitals and hunger in the one sentence. I don't think anything which has been written about the great man summed up so economically and powerfully what it cost AP to become a legend.

There's something poignant about a retiring star. We wonder, I think, if they may feel like John Updike's anti-hero Rabbit Angstrom who never really recovers from having been a high school basketball star because, "after you've been first-rate at something, no matter what, it kind of takes the kick out of being second-rate."

Tony McCoy has always seemed a model of humility, intelligence and decency, traits which will surely stand him in good stead in his life after racing.

But Chanelle McCoy spoke of inevitable lonely and empty times which lie ahead of her husband. Horse racing people are, above all, realists. A man who has dedicated his life to a calling the way Tony McCoy has done is not going to walk away from it without profound regret.

It's strange to think we won't see him again. In the end he both transcended his sport and ennobled it, winning the affection of that large swathe of the general public only dimly aware of National Hunt racing. And for fans of the sport he represented an ideal of excellence, one which may not be attained again in our lifetimes.

Yet it is in the nature of sport that it will go on. There will be new heroes and next year, for the first time since 1995, a new champion jockey. What there won't be is a new Tony McCoy.

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