Monday 23 October 2017

Leaving in one piece may be McCoy's greatest victory of them all

Tony McCoy
Tony McCoy
12 March 2014: Kid Cassidy, with Tony McCoy up, during the BetVictor Queen Mother Champion Chase. Cheltenham Racing Festival 2014 (Ramsey Cardy / SPORTSFILE)
The stories of McNamara and Condon this week served to accentuate the sense that, in McCoy’s retirement, sport isn’t so much losing a modern great as releasing him from the tyranny of obsession
Vincent Hogan

Vincent Hogan

It was said of Bob Beamon's long jump in Mexico City that he had broken the Olympic record "by half a century".

Next weekend's farewell to AP McCoy at Sandown will, presumably, follow a similar tone given he hasn't so much rewritten the records of National Hunt as taken them away for private ownership. Nobody will challenge his figures because only the profoundly dim would even try.

McCoy says he wants to bow out now before he starts "making a show of himself" as if he has been forgetting where he left the car keys or begun turning up at the wrong racecourses. Yet, his ride in Saturday's Grand National was franked by all of the old precision and fearlessness that, for two decades, so distinguished him in the saddle.

I think it was Mick Fitzgerald who was left wondering "why on earth" a man in such form would even countenance retirement.

But you could scarcely watch Aintree last Saturday without your thoughts drifting to Robbie McNamara who had, by then, been transferred to the Mater Hospital in Dublin for an operation to release pressure on his spine following a horrible fall in Wexford the day before. Robbie's own cousin, JT McNamara, was left paralysed by a similar incident at Cheltenham in 2013.


Dr Adrian McGoldrick, chief medical officer of the Irish Turf Club, has indicated that only the expert care Robbie received on the racecourse and again at Wexford General Hospital last week "saved his life". He was, literally, that close to catastrophe.

The hope now is that Robbie can make a full recovery, as is the case with Davy Condon who suffered his second, terrifying bout of spinal concussion in just seven months after a fall in Saturday's Aintree showpiece. I don't doubt both will even hope to ride competitively again if the medical advice allows it.

But the stories of McNamara and Condon this week served to accentuate the sense that, in McCoy's retirement, sport isn't so much losing a modern great as releasing him from the tyranny of obsession.

He has broken pretty much every bone in his body but, God willing, the Antrim man will be able to depart Sandown without assistance next week.

His demeanour has softened palpably as the big day looms and there was something un-typical about his declaration that, if Shutthefrontdoor won last weekend, he planned on retiring immediately.

That sense of theatre never interested him through the relentless grind of stockpiling 4,000-plus winners, but it is as if he now, suddenly, understands the public's appetite for romance.

McCoy leaving racing with a Grand National win as his final statement would have drawn tears even from those left tossing away worthless betting slips.

But the game he has dominated is as hard as there is in sport and he will know that to leave it in one piece is the ultimate big-race victory.

He has been champion jockey in the UK since Tiger Woods' Major tally stood at zero and admits that he hasn't always been the most welcoming or multi-dimensional of people to deal with in that time.

He always believed that others might have possessed more talent, but none had a greater work ethic.

So McCoy would, to the end, take himself to midweek meetings on ramshackle tracks if he believed there was the possibility of a winner. He took rides that anyone with a serious concern for their own well-being would have side-stepped.

For two decades, he embraced this hard, dangerous life that required being tracked every inch of the way by an ambulance.

Endlessly he kept paring his body down to an unnatural weight, sporadically having to rehab from the inevitable glossary of jump-jockey misfortunes - broken ankles, legs, arms, wrists, vertebrae, collar bones, shoulder blades, cheekbones and ribs.

Did he worry? He couldn't allow himself because to do so would, he once said, "drive yourself nuts if you kept thinking about it."

Personally, I never quite bought that line. When you are a veteran of the weigh-room, chances are you've come to know things about the human body that most of us on the outside can barely countenance.

McCoy has said that his only concrete plan in retirement is to play golf for six months and, as a regular partner of his, he will hope that Robbie McNamara will be there to tee off with him.

For a time last week, the chances of that being the case looked frighteningly threadbare. And rest assured there won't have been a single jockey following the bulletins on McNamara with anything but a queasy foreboding.

As Davy Russell once put it: "We might be hard mentally, but not physically. When you hit the hard ground, you break."

McCoy's greatness wasn't that he kept getting back up again, but that he wanted to.

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