The real McCoy
Jonathan Liew meets racing’s most endearing champion whose unrelenting drive to succeed shows no signs of waning down despite lack of wider acclaim
Tony McCoy is in reflective mood. "There will be a lot of people in sport who have never heard of my name," he says. "Let alone outside sport." He's not complaining, you understand. That is just how it is.
Outside the racecourse, McCoy has grown accustomed to anonymity. If you are not a racing fan, you may well skim the first couple of paragraphs before turning the page. But just wait a second.
This is a story worth telling.
By the time you read these words, the Antrim man will probably have been up for several hours already. He will have had his first meal of the day -- if that's what you choose to call the Lilliputian morsels upon which he intermittently nibbles -- and taken the first of several daily hot baths he needs to make his racing weight.
Weight is the foremost of McCoy's preoccupations. At a relatively large 5ft 10in, his natural weight is around 12st, but he needs to be the best part of two stone lighter than that if opportunities are not to be missed. This single-minded pursuit of lightness consumes his entire lifestyle.
Three nights a week, he will go to bed without dinner. If he is not on a horse, he will be in the bath or the sauna sweating out excess substance, or pounding the treadmill (although not for more than 30 minutes at a time, otherwise he will build up muscle).
His 'vice' or guilty pleasure is not drink or tobacco, but a dollop of Hellman's mayonnaise with a meal.
McCoy reckons he can lose up to 10lb in a day if he sets his mind to it, although curiously he never actually weighs himself. After all these years, he knows exactly what he needs to do. "I'll have a cup of tea in the morning, and that'll be it. I'll go and ride out, and then I'd have a hot bath. I've got a television in the bathroom where I can watch replays of races. If I'm really depressed, I can watch Jeremy Kyle."
And that's the nub of AP McCoy's appeal. Within racing, that is what they call him. It is how his name appears on the racecards but it is also an immensely respectful gesture, lending the man a certain reverence that is entirely fitting when you examine his sporting achievements alone.
Winner of the Champion Hurdle, Cheltenham Gold Cup, King George VI Chase, Queen Mother Champion Chase and Irish Grand National. Champion jockey for the last 15 years in a row. More than 3,000 career winners and, in April this year, in some of the most emotional scenes ever seen on a British racecourse, winner of the Aintree Grand National for the first time.
But the victories and the trophies are just part of it. Fundamentally, McCoy is just a very nice man. Over the years, he may have earned a reputation for grimness and introspection but it is also true that he has learned to relax. And when he does relax -- "this is my last day off until Christmas," he notes drily on the day of our interview -- he is loquacious, entertaining company.
That restless optimism is what keeps him going when he goes to bed hungry or grimaces while riding with a broken back, as he once did for six weeks. Far from draining his spirit, McCoy's Spartan existence actually fuels his determination.
"I got down to 10st 3lb in March for the Imperial Cup. Before I would have done it with the hope of winning. Now, it needs to be winning."
He won, of course.
And that is before we get to the injuries. McCoy stands in front of a skeleton and points out the bones he has broken during his career: "My ankle, my leg, my arm, my wrist, my middle vertebrae, my lower vertebrae, both shoulder blades, collarbones, chin bones..." and so on, until he's listed most of the 206 bones in the human body.
It is a catalogue of harm that would long have despatched most rugby players to the commentary box or the after-dinner circuit. One in every 11 jump rides, according to one estimate, results in a fall. But in the racing world, even recovery is a luxury in which few jockeys bother to indulge.
"I had a fall at Bangor two Saturdays ago, and I probably shouldn't have gone out after that," McCoy says. "But because I could physically go out, I did. Even when you're lying on the ground with a broken wrist, the first thing you think about is how long you're going to be off for. You don't think: 'I've broken my wrist.'
"When I hurt my back at Warwick, the first thing that came into my mind was: 'It's only eight weeks to Cheltenham.' It's just the way you end up thinking."
Yet despite the missed meals and the broken bones, the wider public struggles to regard jockeys as serious athletes. Comedians from Harry Enfield to Steve Coogan have long portrayed the sport as a frivolous, eccentric jolly: a modest-sized pursuit for modest-sized people.
I freely admit that I was sceptical about the physical demands of racing, a sport in which, it appeared, the only things being exercised were the horses. Until, that is, I clambered aboard the Equicizer.
Essentially, it's a mechanical horse that you ride while watching a jockey's-eye view of the course on a screen in front of you. Festooned in racing silks, I stepped into the stirrups and prepared to race against the great AP.
Through my reinforced plastic helmet, I could just about make out McCoy's voice, suggesting I could do with going on a diet. Charming. Is that how he unsettles all his opponents? Before he could unveil the next stage of his psychological warfare, though, we were off. To get some idea of the impact, try sitting down and standing up without a chair several times in quick succession. Within seconds my thighs were scorched to cinders, my knees desperately braced against the horse's neck in an attempt to secure a modicum of comfort.
And then I fell off.
As I withdrew from the fray, cackles of derision muffling in my swaddled ears, I drastically adjusted my view of horse racing. What I wanted to know of McCoy, as soon I had changed into something a little less Lycra-enriched, was why he had chosen to put himself through it -- the starvation, the injuries, the burning thighs -- for two decades.
"There's nothing like winning," he says. "When I started off riding, you dream about being champion jockey. Then I wanted to be champion jockey again. Then I wanted to ride 200 winners in a season. Then, when there was a chance of riding more winners than Richard Dunwoody, that was my goal."
Really, though, one could ask what else there is left to achieve. And although he is far too self-effacing to enunciate it, you can tell that what he wants -- and deserves -- is wider acclaim.
"Our sport needs to be brought to a wider audience. If I stripped off now and stood beside most sportspeople, I would look every bit as much the athlete as them. Our sport is physically and mentally very demanding."
And while the horse racing industry hasn't proved to be totally recession-proof in Ireland in recent times, it has been in decline for years across the water, with dwindling crowds and ever-shrinking prize money leaving many mid-ranking jockeys out of pocket, even if they win regularly. In Britain, the organisation Racing For Change has been set up with the goal of selling racing to a mass market. But what the sport needs is a little glitz, and McCoy believes he knows just the man.
"I'm a great admirer of Barry Hearn, and what he's done for darts and snooker. Who would have watched darts five years ago? Let's be honest, racing has got a lot more going for it than sports like that. When you see what Barry Hearn has done for darts, anything is possible. Hopefully, Racing For Change can make these things happen."
In December, McCoy has the perfect opportunity to reach out to the public at large. He is the bookmakers' favourite to win BBC Sports Personality of the Year. No jockey has ever won the award.
The idea makes McCoy slightly awkward ("There will be people watching their television thinking, 'Who the f**k is he?'"), but there can have been few more deserving candidates in the show's history -- and that stretches back to 1954.
It is about more than nostalgia or garlands. It is about one noble, venerated sport's quest for revival. And in the irrepressible McCoy, it has found its champion. (© Daily Telegraph, London)