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Jockey Gavin Sheehan celebrates aboard Cole Harden after winning the World Hurdle

Jockey Gavin Sheehan celebrates aboard Cole Harden after winning the World Hurdle

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Tony McCoy lifts the trophy for the Ryanair Chase

Tony McCoy lifts the trophy for the Ryanair Chase

PA

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Jockey Gavin Sheehan celebrates aboard Cole Harden after winning the World Hurdle

For all but the first two years of Gavin Sheehan's life, there has been a single champion jockey in England. To his generation in a National Hunt weigh-room, AP McCoy cannot but exist as a living deity.

"We'll miss you AP" was the message beamed from a giant screen in the Cheltenham paddock yesterday after the champion's sublime, front-running victory on Uxizandre in the Ryanair chase. It had been McCoy's 14th ride of the week and it felt as if the whole of Gloucestershire had been hanging in suspense for that moment.

When he bows out of this game at Sandown Park in six weeks, kids like Sheehan might find it disorienting trying to absorb that, for the first time in their lives, the jockeys' title will cease to exist as something abstract and unattainable.

No-one yet knows JP McManus' innermost thoughts on a replacement for McCoy. Chances are, he might not even seek one, that he might just trawl the broad sea of talent out there and go for different people on different days.

Yet, within half an hour of McCoy's triumph yesterday, something quite stunning happened. Sheehan guided Cole Harden up the hill to victory in the World Hurdle with a precise tactical replica of what the master had just produced on Uxizandre. That is, he put his horse brazenly to the front and challenged the rest of the field to play chase.

Sheehan is 22, Champion Conditional in England last year and a young man described by English trainer Charlie Mann as "a serious talent". Hailing from Dunmanway, his career is gathering serious impetus now after a staccato opening.

A pony-racing champion, his story seemed to stall when things "didn't click" during a stint with Michael Hourigan. Then a fall in a point-to-point brought matters to a head. Sheehan dislocated his shoulder and decided it was time for a change of scenery.

"He (Hourigan) taught me an awful lot," said Sheehan yesterday. "But it was one of those things where I wanted the winners and I wasn't really getting them.

"Then when I got broke up over there, I had time to think about what I wanted to do." A phone-call to Noel Fehily brought the recommendation that he get in touch with Mann, for whom Fehily had been a Champion Conditional.

"Charlie did nothing but support me," recalled Sheehan. "He said 'put your head down and work hard and you will get the rides'. I was out doing gardening and different things, but I was getting the rides too and the winners. Everything was coming together, but he was just sticking at the same number and I wanted a little bit more. That's why I went to Warren Greatrex."

Greatrex's yard, Fred Winters' old place at Uplands in Lambourne, is described as "up and coming". Cole Harden yesterday put it on the map.

The emotion that flowed was thus entirely natural, Greatrex praised Sheehan for "getting everything right" on the winner. The trainer described himself as "normally a cool customer" but said this had just taken him to a different place.

There is a view that McCoy has never really done that kind of emotion. Yet his wife Chanelle was moved to tears watching the famous green and gold silks emerge through the gloaming after Uxizandre's triumph. And McCoy himself did seem more fulfilled yesterday than has been the case for many of his two decades of obsession.

"Look it's fantastic, you know Cheltenham is a very special place," he said after a thunderous ovation from the crowd. "It's where every jockey wants to win and I'm no different. I'm like everyone else. There's nowhere like Cheltenham for winning. Racing people are fantastic and they've always been fantastic to me.

"These are the days that I'm going to miss, that's for sure."

He may be made of twine, but the shadows his records cast seem untouchable now. Stan Mellor, after all, rode 1,000 winners in 20 years. Johnny Francome did it in 15, Richard Dunwoody in 12. McCoy was at that mark in barely six.

While others were still using yesterday's lines, he just moved relentlessly forward, indifferent to form charts and price markets. To McCoy, a Monday at Plumpton was just as important as a Tuesday at the Festival, so long as there were winners to be found.

Irritating

True, he could be bitter as a crab apple on the bad days; eyes narrowing dangerously towards anyone tossing irritating questions. When there was frost in his cheeks, it was best not to pry.

He had the tunnelled insularity that maybe all great sports people need, once drawing parallels with what he saw in Michael Schumacher.

"Schumacher's perception," he said, "was 'If it means killing myself - and someone else - if that means him not beating me, then that's the way it's going to have to be!"

He didn't mean it literally, of course. But that was the starkness with which he went about this business.

Yet, since racking up his 4,000th jumps win at Towcester, there has been a palpable softening in McCoy. Having broken almost every bone in his body, it is as if, finally he understood there was nothing left to prove.

Yesterday Willie Carson marvelled at his ability to face down injury and keep getting up "again and again and again". In racing, there is nothing harder to protect against than a loss of will. Scudamore once talked of reaching a point in his career when he started looking down the list of runners in a novice chase "and I'd think I didn't want the risk".

It convinced him that, after eight jockeys' titles, it was time to walk away. Scudamore was 34. McCoy's 20th title came at the age of 40.

He won the Grand National in 2010 at the 15th attempt and surprised himself with the emotion that victory on Don't Push It decanted in him.

"For a long time, I had no interest in what anyone thought or wrote," he said recently. "My head was busy. I was wrapped up in myself.

"Even though I was winning and breaking records, I didn't feel I had earned the right to enjoy my success.

"I'm totally convinced there are more talented jockeys than me in the weighing-room, but I can maintain a work-rate they're not able to."

That thing about talent is a moot point, though there is little doubting that not every horse warmed to his bedside manner. But McCoy's numbers alone elevate him to a place surely beyond the realm of a future human targets.

Someone asked him yesterday if he had begun to despair of a farewell Festival win after 13 fruitless rides.

"Not really, no," he said impassively. "I had a lot of rides coming into the week, I didn't have any real bankers if you like. And you're just trying to keep going, hope that one of them wins.

"You know, it's how my life has normally gone so no point in changing for this week."

That is the mindset young Sheehan must now aspire to.

His parents, Seanie and Geraldine, were initially slow to warm to his boyhood talk of becoming a jockey. It just seemed fanciful to begin with, but now they have a star.

"I had the world of support behind me when I did actually get into it. My father's coming over for Aintree now because I hopefully have a ride in the Grand National," he said.

"They just didn't know enough about it at the start. That was the main thing. They put down their €2.50 each way in the Grand National but they would probably back every horse because they wouldn't know."

The signs of his vocation were there from a young age, mind. Having asked Santa for a rocking horse, he ended up getting a pony, which was what got him into racing.

"That's where Paul Townend, Davy Condon and all them big lads came from," he smiled. "It's the Castle Racing Syndicate: the O'Donovans, the Keanes, McCarthys. They have the best of pony racing and that's where it all really kicked off."

So, after four years in England, Gavin Sheehan becomes an overnight sensation beneath the shadow of Cleeve Hill. That's the way the world turns in this environment.

"It's a long road (from Dunmanway)," he smiled. "Noel Fehily is from not too far down the road. He's come over and he's got bigger footsteps than me."

The road ahead could be paved with gold, or it could be a minefield. Every day you go to work is a day you flirt with danger.

The day at Newbury in February that McCoy revealed his intention to retire, he said that he was probably the only person in the world who would even miss the falls. Why? "Because it's what challenges you in life and it's what has challenged me for the last 20 years."

Gavin Sheehan might do worse than adopt that as a motto.

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