Saturday 7 December 2019

Friendly fires burn brightly for racing's leading men

The ultimate enforcer and the supreme stylist, AP and Ruby have dominated their craft in very different ways, writes John O'Brien

A couple of years back, Tony McCoy conducted an interview with a female sportswriter. The subject turned to the birth of McCoy's daughter, Eve, five months previously.

How brave had the jockey been during delivery? "I was grand," he replied deadpan. "Sat in the car reading the Racing Post." He watched the look of horror descend over his companion's face before erupting in a fit of giggles. Only joking.

Then he got serious. Childbirth? Hopelessly over-rated, McCoy thought. What was all the fuss about? "It's not as bad as you all make out," he said. "I just think you women go down the self-pity route." Who else, you wondered, would even dare enter such fraught terrain and imagine he could emerge unscathed? Who else but McCoy could get away with calling women soft?

McCoy might not be the hardest living sportsman, but he must surely be close. A few years ago he rode the Jonjo O'Neill-trained Risk Accessor at Cheltenham. The horse fell and kicked four of his teeth out. He wiped the blood from his mouth and rode the winner of the next race. The story is such a common thread of his life as to appear mundane. "He has no pain barrier," said O'Neill that day in disbelief.

Ruby Walsh related a story about McCoy before last year's Cheltenham Festival. One Friday McCoy broke his collarbone in a fall at Kempton and told nobody. The following day they were driving back to Kempton and had to make a stop for McCoy to throw up. He still rode a treble that day. By the time Cheltenham arrived, two weeks later, the shoulder had healed. Then McCoy suffered a fall in the Grand Annual Chase and smashed the shoulder in several places. He was back for Aintree a few weeks after that.

When he speaks about McCoy, Walsh does so with a sense of awe that is remarkable. Walsh follows a punishing schedule riding between Ireland and England, but considers it soft compared to the torture McCoy routinely endures for his craft. From his father and others Walsh learned what it took to become a top rider. It is from McCoy, more than anyone else however, that he has learned what it takes to stay there.

By right they should despise each other. Walsh for the iron grip the older jockey maintains on the jockeys' title. McCoy for the manner in which his rival appeared and stole all the best rides. How many sports can you find where the top performers entertain anything more than respectful cordiality? Woods and Mickelson? Can't stand each other. Ferguson and Wenger? Ditto. Federer and Nadal? Just about tolerant.

The friendship between McCoy and Walsh goes above and beyond the call of duty. When their respective football teams, Arsenal and Manchester United, face each other at Old Trafford, could you imagine Cesc Fabregas staying overnight at Gary Neville's house? Yet that is what Walsh regularly does when he pitches up at McCoy's house near Newbury and flings his gear into the space forever enshrined as 'Ruby's room'.

Their bond goes back to 2002. Walsh was heading to England to school horses for Henrietta Knight and had nowhere to stay. A friend suggested he call McCoy. Walsh was uncertain. He knew McCoy but didn't know him at the same time. McCoy had a reputation for being cold and distant, but the truth was very different. McCoy's had long been a stopover for for young Irish riders seeking to find their feet. Walsh was welcomed with open arms.

"Flat jockeys don't have the same affinity," says former rider Mick Fitzgerald. "It's the danger thing. The guy you're sat beside in the weigh-room is the guy who might have to rescue you from the hospital. AP has 3,000 winners but he'd be the first to ring the hospital to make sure an injured jockey was okay to get home, whether it was a seven-pound claimer or Ruby Walsh. It's not something you'd hear about. He'd never want it to be known."

It is possible to argue, of course, that such a close bond between its top performers takes some of the edge off the sport. McCoy and Walsh never ride less than ruthlessly, but theirs is a rivalry that has rarely caught fire on the track. Walsh, through his association with Paul Nicholls and Willie Mullins, farms the big races either side of the Irish Sea, while McCoy seems content to pursue the numbers game. Almost unwittingly, they have carved out separate territories for themselves and rule over them with ruthless efficiency.

The last champion jockey before McCoy was Richard Dunwoody, a famously obsessive figure who maintained few friendships in the weigh-room. For the last of his three jockeys' titles Dunwoody fought a bitter duel with Adrian Maguire and their struggle captured the imagination of the sporting world. Yet, for all his drive and determination, Dunwoody was an aberration rather than the norm.

"Lads look out for each other in jump racing," says Ruby Walsh's father, Ted. "Frank Berry and Tommy Carberry fought out the championship for 15 years but still they went everywhere together. Tommy would pick Frank up in Kildare and they'd head off to Gowran or Killarney and bate the jaysus out of each other on the racetrack. They always shared a room when they went to Cheltenham. It's been like that for donkey's years and won't ever change."

Walsh is old enough to remember jump racing's greatest rivalry: Arkle and Mill House. Arkle was ridden by Pat Taaffe, Mill House by one of his best friends, the Kildare-born Willie Robinson. Taaffe often stayed with Robinson when he rode in England and their rivalry was framed by a constant banter that never turned nasty or sour. In that noble tradition Walsh and McCoy have followed.

And as he faces into another Festival, it is Taaffe's record of 25 winners that Walsh, on 24, now holds in his sights. McCoy has 21 but his strike rate in recent years has been modest. Yet if McCoy was to get an early winner on the boards with Captain Cee Bee in the Arkle Chase on Tuesday, who is to say he couldn't give Walsh a run for his money? Imagine Kauto Star and Denman going head to head on Thursday with the Gold Cup and the leading riders' title still in the balance. What a finale that would be.

The debate as to who is the all-time best would resume with renewed vigour. Do you place more merit on the winning of big races or the stamina-sapping energy it takes to be champion jockey 14 years running? Last year, the former jockey Terry Biddlecombe locked horns with respected tipster, Tom Segal. Biddlecombe passionately argued McCoy's case, while, for Segal, it was "Walsh by a mile." McCoy didn't even figure in his top four.

For some it is enough to say they are radically different jockeys with different styles and different ways of applying their greatness. Walsh is the supreme stylist, McCoy more of an enforcer. Their styles are probably a result of their formative years. Walsh learned his craft under Ted and Willie Mullins' expert tutelage and rode as an amateur before turning professional. Patience was his thing and the years spent riding on bad ground in Ireland helped hone a sense of timing that is instinctive and unrivalled in the modern game.

McCoy, of course, didn't share Walsh's blueblood racing genes. He learned to ride at Willie Rock's yard a few miles from his family home in Toomebridge and spent time at Jim Bolger's academy in Co Carlow before deciding to try his luck across the water. He arrived at Toby Balding's yard, 19 years old and a raw apprentice, but eager to kick on, already a champion's scent in his nostrils. He has been champion ever since.

Perhaps it is already ordained that Walsh will emerge once again with the major prizes and enshrine his legend as the Festival's greatest rider. But it is likely too that McCoy -- somewhere, somehow -- will also leave his mark. Think back a year and what springs to mind isn't just Walsh's dominance but the manic desire McCoy showed to get Wichita Lineman home in the William Hill Handicap Chase from what seemed an impossible position as early as the first circuit.

Tragically, the brave gelding suffered a fatal injury a short time later after a fall in the Irish Grand National at Fairyhouse. McCoy, though, is still on the line. Still showing his younger friend and rival what it takes to survive at extreme altitude deep into the autumn of your career.

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