Sunday 19 November 2017

McCoy would be reluctant member of celebrity world

BBC award can raise profile of real sporting hero and offer boost to the 'minority' industry, writes Ian McClean

It may be the most physically debilitating sport this side of boxing, but it hasn't meant that any jockey has ever won BBC's Sports Personality of the Year. The nomination of Tony McCoy and his position as odds-on favourite has the racing tribe in a frenzy to ride his campaign all out to the finish in an effort to see him crowned at a time when racing needs positive endorsement more than ever.

But whilst the evangelists at Racing For Change are positively apoplectic at the prospect of racing's once-in-a-lifetime photo opportunity, the whole cocktail is laced with more than a soupcon of paradox and just a faint hint of irony.

In advance of the BBC public broadcast from Birmingham on December 19, as part of racing's campaign to see its most garlanded member over the line, Cheltenham racecourse has rechristened its feature race at next Saturday's International two-day meeting the Vote AP Gold Cup. The irony is how this is only made possible by the fact that the high-profile race lacks a sponsor, just one symptom of how racing is being blighted in these times of economic penury.

But for the ordinary punter, AP has been AP in the boom and in the bust and it is simply for the recognition of his talent, achievement and inhuman dedication that every race fan wishes to see him win.

McCoy himself is nothing if not paradoxical. Jonjo O'Neill once wryly remarked to a journalist inquiring about the jockey's resilience and dedication, "Sure, Tony's not human". We know what he means. Far from being inhuman, McCoy is superhuman. He is driven perhaps more than any other sportsman of his era. Having your body mashed in the service of the saddle is a given for any jockey but McCoy took it to different heights at Exeter under the tutelage of Martin Pipe when riding two odds-on shots at Exeter knowing he was carrying a broken collarbone from the previous day.

And as for AP's competitive spirit, it extends well beyond the track, as evidenced when using Kriotherapy to speed up recovery from an horrendous fall at Warwick in January 2008. Taking no prisoners in an effort to get back in time for Cheltenham, he even set a world endurance record in that discipline by lasting a full three minutes at a numbing -149C.

McCoy's dedication and talent have been backed by results. Champion conditional upon his arrival in Britain in 1994-'95, he was outright champion the following year and has never known what it is not to be champion in every year since. His hunger at 36 hasn't abated even after 13,000 races, equivalent to 31,000 miles or time-and-a-half the circumference of the earth. Yet in spite of this superhuman drive and accompanying achievement he is a man of utmost humility.

One rich irony about this year's nomination, of course, is the fact that this year's SPOTY odds-on favourite wasn't even on the shortlist of 10 for 2009. McCoy began 2010 as a 66/1 shot and now he's 4/6. Apparently it's taken McCoy 15 years to become an overnight success. This year McCoy was the only candidate nominated by all 30 of the eligible sports writers. So where were they last year?

One plausible explanation could be the misdeeds of others in 2010 -- England's footballers flopped in South Africa, Andy Murray's wait for a first Grand Slam title goes on, the Formula One pair of Jenson Button and Lewis Hamilton were eclipsed by Sebastian Vettel, and David Haye barely broke sweat when beating Audley Harrison.

Even more obviously, the chief differentiating factor this year was McCoy's emotional win in the Grand National -- his first after countless attempts -- where the man of granite turned to human jelly as he told viewers in their hundreds of millions that now, at last, his three-year-old daughter Eve could be proud of him when she grows up.

It is further ironic then that the BBC, retreating faster from live racing coverage than a politician from economic responsibility, should be the display-case offering the primary platform for McCoy and racing to gain unprecedented recognition. Especially when you consider that the racing man's chief rival, fellow Ulsterman Graeme McDowell (5/1), achieved his crowning glory -- becoming the first European for 40 years lift the US Open -- watched only by satellite viewers.

Indeed golf offers the main threat to a McCoy accolade with Lee Westwood -- recently usurping Tiger Woods as world number one -- third favourite at 10/1. Racing often bemoans its marginalisation by other more mainstream sports (although it's second only to football in the UK in terms of numbers-through-turnstiles) but Tony Jacklin, former Ryder Cup captain, was equally lamenting of the way in which golfers are overlooked in the coronation of SPOTY. He was pipped in 1970 by Henry Cooper.

In a recent interview on the subject, he said: "Of course I'd like Graeme McDowell to win, but it seems we're just a minority sport. That's just how it is." When asked about the chances of Tony McCoy, he replied (with how much irony we can't be sure): "Tony McCoy? I can't say I've ever heard of him. Won the Grand National, did he? Surely it was the horse who did that."

And so it is 16/1 bar one of the minority sports receiving the coronation on December 19. The vote will be decided by the British public. Tony McCoy's esteem has long since been copperfastened by those whose judgement he respects, yet here his life's work is being assessed by those millions who watch racing once a year.

Should he win the award, we would then face the absurd situation where a jockey achieves a brand of public recognition that neither public darlings Lester Piggott nor Frankie Dettori ever managed in their career, but is engaged in a boycott of one of his own sports-designated channels. McCoy's boycott of Racing UK stems from criticism he received from two senior commentators over his riding of a Jonjo O'Neill hurdler at Ascot last month. Whatever the rights and wrongs of that dispute, racing has the distorted situation of its most precious asset conquering an unprecedented mass audience whilst boycotting a sustainable one.

Simon Cowell -- Tony McCoy is not. Rather than spotlight, AP is more naturally fitted by shadow. His personality -- abundant though it is -- is not revealed at first, or even second greeting.

Should he be crowned Sports Personality of the Year, then even Tony Jacklin will know his name. Given his potential new-found celebrity, the final irony of the piece will not be lost within the name of the horse in the Racing UK dispute. Get Me Out Of Here.

Sunday Independent

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