Monday 19 February 2018

The Couch: Overcoming every obstacle with strength of his mind

Tommy Conlon

The racecourse where AP McCoy nailed his landmark achievement last week is off the beaten track, even in a sport which itself is off the beaten track by global standards.

But then again the great man has spent his career doing remarkable things in places that are obscure to everyone bar National Hunt racing's devout believers.

Every track, with few exceptions, is off the beaten track and it's in these coarse fields, dotted around Britain, that the master goes to work daily while the rest of the world is finding its entertainment elsewhere.

A Thursday at Towcester is not the time or place for glory in the modern age. It doesn't fit with the corporate opulence of high-end contemporary sport. The best, the greatest, perform their feats in palaces. They are watched by millions on television, mythologised by the saturation-colour images and super-slow-motion replays. They are bathed in luxury, money and prestige.

But it was here in this Northamptonshire town that McCoy reached a new frontier for his sport in human performance. Many of racing's cognoscenti would say he reached a new frontier the equal of any achieved in any other sport too.

He was watched by an estimated 4,000 spectators. Those who wanted to see it on television needed access to the specialist racing channel. Mainstream TV caught up with it on their news bulletins later that evening. Most of Friday's national newspapers carried it on their front pages. By then it had travelled online around the globe too.

McCoy once again had broken beyond the borders of racing's provincial milieu; he had brought the masses to his sport; he had brought the world to Towcester on a wintry Thursday in November.

His family and friends threw a party for him that night. But he doesn't drink alcohol, and he didn't sit down to a big feed either, unless it was a salad – without the dressing.

It need hardly be said that his hunger for winners is omnivorous. It seems to go beyond the compulsions that drive even the most needy champions. "I live in fear of not winning," he said after he'd clocked up his 4,000th at Towcester. The nearest jockey to him on the all-time list is his contemporary Richard Johnson who, as of Friday morning, was on 2,571. Ruby Walsh was third at time of writing on 2,224. McCoy in addition has been champion jump jockey for 18 seasons in a row.

Naturally, it all began with an innate talent for his trade. He was 21 when the leading trainer Paul Nicholls observed him schooling horses one day. "This boy has the most wonderful balance," said Nicholls at the time, "he always has the horses at ease under him." McCoy was then on the brink of the most comprehensively dominant era in the history of National Hunt riders.

And yet he only allowed himself a pat on the back last Thursday, at the age of 39, despite all that had gone before. "It's the first time in my life that I have been proud of what I have achieved. It wasn't until I got past the winning post today that I felt I was doing something different."

So there is obviously some sort of profound psychological hunger at the core of his success. But trailing along beside it has been a hunger of the literal kind too. Day after day, year after year, he has starved himself to make the racing weight. If he is blessed with his mental strength, he is cursed by his physique. He is too tall and too heavy for the job. He has endured an unending battle with his own body fat. It is reflected in the haunted expression, the hollow cheeks and whitened face.

It's one thing to not eat, he has said; this would be just about bearable. But then to not eat, and still have to lose weight, is another level of punishment altogether. Boxers do it in the run-up to a fight; but they'll only have a couple of fights a year. Most jockeys have to do it all the time. McCoy routinely sits in saunas and lowers himself into scalding hot baths, trying to boil off calories he hasn't eaten.

A litany of horrendous falls and shattered bones hasn't broken him. But 20 years of nagging hunger should have. The temptation to capitulate, one imagines, is only a hot dinner away every

single day. Nor has his will apparently been softened by marriage and the two kids whom he plainly adores.

Still he goes on, the monomaniacal hunter. "There is still the brutal self-denial," wrote Brough Scott in Friday's Racing Post, "that is prepared to starve the body only to make the mind ever more ravenous for victory."

McCoy's physical toughness, his pain threshold and ability to endure hardship, are the stuff of legend. But it all seems to be enabled by a mind that will not bend or weaken. Some jockeys pack it in after one fall too many; they simply lose their nerve. Others cannot take the fasting any more.

The champion intends to continue if he stays injury-free. "It's the physical longevity of the job that is the issue," he said on Thursday. But it's his mind, it seems, that has been winning the battle all along. It has been the most powerful weapon in his extraordinary career. It is the fathomless source of his greatness.

Sunday Independent

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