Tuesday 25 April 2017

Tommy Conlon: A fascinating but chilling insight into what makes a winner's mind tick

Chanelle and Tony McCoy
Chanelle and Tony McCoy

The Couch: Tommy Conlon

So, they're having a nice al fresco meal in what looks like a swanky gastropub in rural England on a late summer's evening. The champ and his missus: Tony and Chanelle McCoy. We join them via the cameras of a television crew filming a documentary titled Being AP. It was broadcast last Sunday on BBC2.

The film belongs to the Great Man genre. This genre is usually about a man who is outstanding at his job. His line of work is usually in the public eye and therefore widely acclaimed. Tony McCoy is the most successful jockey in the long history of horse racing.

He has set records which they say will not be beaten in the next 100 years, and maybe never. His achievements are prodigious, unprecedented, immortal.

But this very fine film is also a portrait of a marriage. Here too we have a familiar trope: the trials of being the wife to a Great Man. The struggle of coming second to his work. The unhappy reality of not being number one in his life. The compromised pride in being married to a supremely selfish man.

The filming takes place over the 2014/'15 National Hunt racing season. A pall hangs over it all. There is the constant spectre familiar to all jump jockeys and their loved ones: catastrophic injury. And there is the spectre that haunts McCoy in particular: retirement.

Both these ghosts are at the table on that summer's evening. Actually, there's a third one too, which oddly isn't addressed at all: McCoy's 20 years of near starvation to make the weight. In November 2013 he rode his 4,000th career winner. "There is still the brutal self-denial," wrote Brough Scott at the time, "that is prepared to starve the body only to make the mind ever more ravenous for victory."

So there is a voyeuristic frisson in actually seeing him take a few forkfuls of dinner. Then he nonchalantly mentions that a jockey was recently so badly injured, "he was bloody dead". (The medics resuscitated him.) A shadow of black fear crosses Chanelle's face. "When you say that," she murmurs, "it actually puts me off my food." "Hmmm?" he replies absent-mindedly, like he'd been discussing the weather. She reminds him that he's spent the last 10 minutes talking about jockeys who've had to be resuscitated after horrendous falls. "It's just the way it is," he shrugs.

At which point, she broaches the dreaded subject after a diplomatic preamble. "I think this year is a good year, honey, to call it a day." Suddenly he's listening for real. "What?" "You heard me!" "Why on earth would any year be a good year to call it a day?"

She says he should make the decision before the decision is made for him. One more injury, God forbid . . . "What's meant to be is meant to be," he replies.

And anyway, what will he actually do after 20 years of this life? "Waking up and thinking, 'Oh, what happens today then?" He is 40 at this point, they have two children. "Well listen," she jokes, "there'll be a few lunch boxes for you to pack and a few bins to take out."

The thunder of hooves as a pack of horses arrives at a hurdle. The footage captures their speed and power. It is a scary sight and sound. McCoy's mount stumbles and throws him clear off. He curls into a foetal ball just as another horse tramples over him. He gets a punctured lung, a cracked sternum and four cracked ribs.

He rides the next race despite the agony because he thinks he can win; he does win. She remarks that his ability to control pain is "bizarre". He can even control his concussions. He can function during a race while thoroughly concussed.

McCoy's mind was a steel trap during his career. He could shut it down against hunger and pain. The mind battered the body into submission. It was a quite chilling demonstration of remorseless control. He reflects on this quality during the documentary. He is never on camera when he shares these reflections. It makes his testimony all the more compelling. It becomes not an interview but a monologue. He avoids the glib, shallow thought processes of most great sportsmen. He is contemplative and articulate, introspective and self-aware.

Chanelle says that his need for control extended beyond the self. He tried to control her too, and their relationship, just like he controlled his horses, his weight, his stats, his career. "It was all about him." He readily admits it. "I think you have to be selfish. I think it has to be all about you. I'm really embarrassed to say it but no one else in the world was important."

He suffers a series of falls during the season. Related or not, he finally decides it will be his last. He announces the news on the occasion of his 200th winner of the campaign, at Newbury in February 2015. He seals his 20th consecutive title as champion jockey in April and faces the abyss. Chanelle says she came home one day to find him "sobbing, absolutely sobbing".

He doesn't see retirement as a second life, he says. "The last one was more of a dream than a life. But I just woke up. Every part of my life was structured and controlled, I thought. But, I could never control getting old."

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