Humble champion takes rightful place in sporting folklore
McCoy's insatiable desire for glory has redefined standards of modern racing, writes Ian McClean
In a week when Roberto Mancini was described as the Nigel Farage of football (for the "speed with which he can get you out of Europe"), Tony McCoy could justifiably be anointed the David Blaine of sport and fittingly performed the prestige act of his career in chalking up his 4,000th jumps win at lowly Towcester on Thursday.
It is as pointless as it is fruitless to attempt to compare relative achievement across sporting codes. Mental and physical resilience are a must to go with talent to be a champion in any endeavour but there is not another popular sport where an ambulance is required to follow proceedings daily, or that reaching the summit is guaranteed to be accompanied by the scorecard of breaking almost every bone in your body.
As former rider Luke Harvey's career guidance teacher once said when Luke admitted he had half a mind to become a jockey, "That's lucky – because it's about all you'll need."
Amongst the myriad elements remarkable about the McCoy story, the most unorthodox relative to the deities of other sporting genres is that since his arrival in the UK as a pale, gawky freshman in 1994, he has never known what it is like not to be champion. It was fitting, therefore, that amidst all those celebrating the landmark accomplishment at the Outside Chance pub he co-owns in Marlborough on Thursday night, Toby Balding should appear, defying ill-health, given it was at his yard the McCoy odyssey had its origin.
Balding's was the base from which "Wee Authnay" (as mentor Billy Rock labelled him) stole the conditional jockeys' title with a record 74 winners in his inaugural year. He became the first ever conditional to be crowned champion senior jockey the very next year, recording 175 winners. In only his second professional year he bettered that score with 190 winners and won both the Gold Cup (Mr Mulligan) and Champion Hurdle (Make a Stand).
That run continued the following year as he smashed Peter Scudamore's record for a season (221) by registering 253 victories. Even then, a legend was being minted before our eyes.
What we were less aware of at the time is that one man was changing forever, by challenging the conventions and orthodoxies of the time, what it meant to be a jump jockey. Stan Mellor was the first jumps rider to conquer the Everest of 1,000 winners in 1971. However, it took him 20 years. Francome reduced it to 15 years. Dunwoody to 12. And Scudamore did it in 11. Then along comes McCoy and accomplishes the feat in half the time it took the most successful jockey in history up until then. You would call it impertinent if the Ulsterman wasn't so self-effacing. Why did he do it? Well, because no one told him he couldn't.
In doing so he consigned forever the old blueprint of the jump jockey to the shredder. Back in the era of Tommy Carberry, Barry Brogan, Terry Biddlecombe and Josh Gifford, jump jockeys were tough, courageous and talented, but there was more of the Corinthian spirit about them. They rode hard and played hard. As is the case with all pioneers, McCoy – teetotal, laser-focused and utterly relentless – has raised the standard in the modern era. It is no coincidence that Walsh, Geraghty and all those that follow are of the same mould. The weigh-room as a result is a more sober institution and the standard of riding has soared.
The only thing that matches the scale of McCoy's achievement is the unrelenting character of his appetite and motivation for success. Fred Winter always said that jump jockeys only really ride for four or five seasons – after that they just hunt around. Not AP. His account of riding his first ever winner as a 17-year-old (at Thurles as a Flat jockey weighing eight stone on Jim Bolger's 20/1 shot Legal Steps, which romped home in a 12-furlong maiden by eight lengths) is perfectly predictable. He recalls: "I was hooked. I realised there's no feeling like winning, like all your Christmases, birthdays and holidays all rolled into one. And even now, I still get that same rush. I've never smoked, drank or taken drugs in my life; this is my fix."
That his motivation should be so purely intact as it was more than half a lifetime ago is practically unimaginable. Particularly so when contrasted with Peter Scudamore, who retired in 1993 with a then record of 1,678 winners.
Scudamore remarked then, "I'd look down the list of runners in novice chases and I'd think that I didn't want to risk injury. I just wasn't in the right frame of mind for chasing titles anymore. It was coming towards the end of the season, and quite honestly I didn't feel like putting in 100 per cent effort anymore." Scudamore was 34 when he bade farewell after eight jockeys' titles. McCoy is 39 and closing in on his 19th crown.
I spent the day with Pat Eddery at Doncaster's St Leger in 1997 when he rode his 4,000th winner on Silver Patriarch and – in spite of the accomplishment – it was tacitly discernible that Eddery was already in deceleration. There is no sense of that with AP.
Six months after I followed McCoy around Fontwell for an afternoon and enquired what it was kept him motivated considering he had never had a leader to chase. His response could be summarised by two predictable themes – fear of failure and the feeling of not being worthy. It is interesting in that context to recall McCoy's most emotional triumph of the whole 4,000 – that of Don't Push It in the 2010 Grand National – and his reaction thereafter. His lachrymose thank list ranged from Billy Rock, who started him, to his daughter Eve who he hoped "will be proud of me when she grows up".
You can break more records and ride more winners than any jumps jockey in history and be champion every year you've competed for 19 in a row, but it takes winning a National, or chalking up 4,000, to make your daughter proud. And as all parents know, you are never a legend under your own roof.
As sire of the next AP (11-week-old Archie Peadar), AP senior will now be held doubly to account and it is only half in jest that McCoy felt pressured to get the 4,000th away before Eve's sixth birthday party on Friday. If only we'd applied family psychology instead of the formbook to Towcester on Thursday, we'd have realised that Mountain Tunes was the biggest certainty to ever look through a bridle.
Out of the blizzard of copy, perhaps the most revealing remark from the champ on the inner machinery is contained in the following: "When I broke Sir Gordon Richards' record [of 269 winners in a season] in 2002, I considered that my greatest achievement but, I mean, 4,000 winners? If I was able to achieve that it would be something to be proud of. More so than anything, because I've known how hard it's been physically and mentally to achieve that. It's probably the one time that I might actually say to myself: 'You've done all right, like'. Which is something I've never done in my life."
Most fitting of all, perhaps, was that a humble man from humble origins should finally accomplish such a feat of universal magnificence at such a beloved, humble track. Pure McCoy.