Wednesday 17 January 2018

AP McCoy: Contemplating the unbearable

Racing and AP McCoy will wake up to a very changed world this morning, writes Ian McClean

AP McCoy
AP McCoy
AP McCoy
AP McCoy

Even today people are still struggling to adjust to a Manhattan skyline without the defining profile of the twin towers. Horseracing wakes up this morning to a disorienting chasm left in the wake of the retirement yesterday at Sandown of AP McCoy from the sport.

McCoy's towering presence - and not just presence but his uninterrupted reign as champion - joined the realm of death and taxes, and his sudden disappearance after 20 consecutive years will leave all of us just that little bit disarrayed, at least for a while.

Anthony Peter McCoy was first crowned professional champion in 1996, the year I began writing this column. Consequently, considering him as the landmark symbol for the sport quickly became as tacitly assumed as the act of inhaling and simply expecting that oxygen would be there.

I can barely recall a life before this column and have only a murky recollection of much life before McCoy. We know nature doesn't tolerate a vacuum and its laws dictate that once created, one will spontaneously fill, but at this precise moment in McCoy's case I'm damned if I can fathom with what.

With the retirement of our champions, a little of ourselves retires too. But McCoy, more than a little of a champion, was a lot of a champion. So much so that for as long as any in the weigh-room can recall he has been known by one name only. Champ.

In the year AP was first anointed champion, OJ Simpson was acquitted, Barings Bank collapsed and the first DVD was launched. YouTube is only 10 years old this week. Rarely, if ever, can any one sportsman have exercised such dominance on a sport for so long as McCoy on the profession of jump racing. A career spanning more than two decades where he never knew what it was not to be champion - not even as conditional in the year before turning professional. McCoy came in at the top, and just kept improving from there.

While others will recite chapter and verse all the records his career scattered like confetti, it is his singular gravity-defying attitude that has always most characterised the man from Moneyglass. Bernard Shaw could have had McCoy in mind when he wrote: "The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man."

If his spectacularly 'unreasonable' innings leaves just one single legacy engraving, it is that he has single-handedly rewritten the perception of what is possible as a jump jockey and what is required to achieve it. Much as Dick Fosbury did at the Mexico Olympics in 1968 when he revolutionised forever the way athletes approached the high jump, McCoy has disrupted completely the conventional wisdom within jump riding. When Stan Mellor rode his 1,000th winner in 1971, it was commonly believed the record would never be exceeded. Yet first Francome (1,138), then Scudamore (1,638) and finally Dunwoody (1,679) subsequently ended their careers with higher totals.

Just imagine back then (Dunwoody retired in August 1999) if someone had said the next all-time record total would be over 4,300 winners. McCoy was just 28 when he bypassed Dunwoody's record. During the last weeks of AP's 'farewell tour' many have asked who will be the next McCoy. The idle, vacuous question is to utterly miss the point. McCoy, like Fosbury, was a game-changer and those that now follow him will only be emulating or improving by fractions the standard he invented. There will be no 'next McCoy' in our lifetime, just some fantastic jockeys committedly leveraging from the bequest he created. Ruby Walsh's quip came somewhere close when he said, "He is made of concrete, they don't make people like AP McCoy any more."

No. AP McCoy has little to worry about there. What he does have to worry about though, as of this morning, is this: for more than 20 years he has woken up to an empty stomach and a full calendar. All of a sudden, today, he can have a full stomach but an empty calendar. Richard Hughes has announced his retirement at the end of this Flat season and will spend the next year feathering his nest in readiness for a training career immediately after. By contrast, the perennial champion jump jockey has gone from 160mph to Stop in a split second. Or as Jeremy Clarkson put it last week, "When your Maserati's done 185mph you're not going to get much of a thrill from a rhubarb growth spurt".

AP has been married to Chanelle for nine years but he's been married to race-winning for more than twice that. McCoy is addicted to winning and now the means have been, at a glance, removed for all time.

The notion of addiction is not lost even on the champ himself as he reflected on his decision not to ride at all during his last week until his swansong at Sandown yesterday "I feel like a heroin addict. I feel like I've needed to be weaned off being a jockey. It's a strong description but riding has been my drug and my high for the last 20 years. By not riding this week I've been trying to get used to not having the fix any longer." His discomfort with the pain of the decision has been fibrously palpable throughout the time since his announcement in mid-February.

One of the most poignantly truthful remarks McCoy has made along the farewell circuit has been that when he was riding he never ever looked back. "Now I'd better get used to looking back because I've got nothing in my future . . ." He concludes: "It's what I've always lived for and gives me the greatest high. Nothing has ever given me more satisfaction. I'm a realist, but it is the worst thing trying to contemplate not riding. It is an unbearable thought."

What makes it even more galling is that he has made the choice to quit while still at the peak of his powers and without the enforcement of external circumstances.

McCoy struggled with his demons through his riding career, although he has mellowed somewhat since the advent of Eve and Archie, his two children. However, the demons of his retirement will be of an entirely different dimension of torment and his resolve will get tested instantly at Punchestown next week. Richard Dunwoody could hardly bear to go racing after his enforced retirement, operating something akin to the 'No Contact' rule after the end of an affair. In the epilogue of his autobiography (significantly titled Obsessed), McCoy's fellow Ulsterman declares: "If I can't ride the race, I don't want to watch it from the sidelines". One other line from the Dunwoody book possesses an eerie echo of the McCoy drive over the last 20 years: "Years of trying to live up to my own expectations made me fearful of failing, and that, as much as anything, motivated me."

McCoy's last-gasp career obsession came earlier this season after a horrendous fall at Worcester in October. In pursuit of 300 winners in one season, he punctured a lung, broke a few ribs and dislocated a shoulder. Dougie Costello recalls McCoy walking into the weigh-room carrying a drip while talking about continuing to ride. Finally resigned to giving up on the ultimate challenge, the removal of the target shot down his motivation and led him to a deep dark place which he claims left him feeling broken. That was purely temporary. Remove that motivation forever, and what are you left to hold?

Given that he was prepared to give his body the battering ram treatment for over two decades, he can look forward in retirement to replacing it by giving his mental self a bit of a jousting for the next while and he should make an interesting new house-guest Chez Chanelle into the bargain. Little wonder bookmakers are offering just 5/1 about a return to the saddle for McCoy.

Bjorn Borg won 11 Grand Slam titles, including five consecutive Wimbledon titles and six French Open titles between the ages of 18 and 25. He announced his retirement in 1983 at the age of 26, at the top of his game. An ill-fated comeback in the early 1990s quickly fizzled. Knowing McCoy (41 next month), however, his impenetrable, granite will should make him too stubborn to do a U-turn.

With his decision, horseracing and AP McCoy are suffering a mutual loss. Racing will miss him as much as he misses racing, but at least the break-up, in spite of being emotional after such a prolonged era, is nonetheless amicable.

Going back to the beginning when I first began this column, the practice was to scribble out the draft on A4 paper, edit with Tipp-Ex and red pen, and then finally phone through to a copy-taker. The world has changed immeasurably in the intervening 20 years. The world of horseracing has just changed immeasurably as of today.

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