Tuesday 24 April 2018

Tony McCoy exclusive: "I feel like a drug addict who is trying to wean himself off"

Legendary jockey AP McCoy talks to Richard Forristal about kicking the habit of riding winners ahead of this afternoon's swansong at Sandown

Tony McCoy bids farewell to the weigh-room at Sandown today
Tony McCoy bids farewell to the weigh-room at Sandown today
Richard Forristal

Richard Forristal

In three days' time, the most successful jockey in the history of jump racing will find himself at Punchestown without a purpose.

AP McCoy will today be crowned champion jockey for a 20th consecutive term. For a first time in 12 years and just the fifth time in his long and illustrious career, JP McManus' trusty ally has exceeded 230 wins in a season, yet by dusk he will be a former jockey. At a stroke.

Come Punchestown on Tuesday, the sport's ultimate gladiator will be marooned outside the amphitheatre. He will be lost in his most natural environment.

A jockey's transition from the all-consuming day-to-day thrills and spills of the job as a competitive pursuit to the mundanity of another existence is jarring. McCoy's whole identity is wrapped up in his profession; he is defined by the constant pursuit of winners.

When the sun sets tonight, though, the sanctuary of the weigh room will be no more.

"I don't know what it will be like but the reality of it is I'm going to have to get used to it," concedes McCoy. "I'm going to Punchestown with JP and I'm just going to get on with it, rather than put it off."

McCoy hasn't ridden since last week's Scottish Grand National meeting. The man who for so long was blind to the possibility of a rest day by the quest for the next winner had his moment of clarity after the original of the species at Aintree.

In February, he had announced his intention to retire, but that was a thought that had been in his head for five years.

Unlikely

While the words left his mouth after that most unlikely of victories on Mr Mole at Newbury, that's all they were. After Aintree, it hit home.

"I have been trying to get myself ready for it," McCoy admits. "It might not be the most politically correct way to describe it, but I feel like a drug addict who is trying to wean himself off.

"It didn't affect my mindset until after Aintree, really. I was very focused on being a jockey and trying to win whatever I could as a jockey and after Aintree I did feel a little flat, to be honest.

"I started thinking, what is there for me to gain now? I wouldn't say that the buzz had gone out of it but the reality of it had set in."

Many would argue that when a jump jockey's thoughts turn to retirement, he should retire; the conviction required for such a hazardous vocation leaves no room for doubt. The joiner's son from Moneyglass in Co Antrim concurs.

"When I had this discussion with my agent Dave Roberts and JP, I agreed that when a jockey decides to retire, he should just walk away," he says. "But, the reality is I kind of knew five years ago that if I was lucky enough to survive five more years and be champion five more times that, realistically, to win 20 jockeys' championships, if you can do that, you should walk away."

It was 25 years ago this week that McCoy left the family home to have the edges knocked off him by Jim Bolger. After four years with Bolger, he crossed the water to Toby Balding's, plundering a then record 74 wins en route to the conditional jockeys' title in 1995, before forming a storied alliance with Martin Pipe.

He walked into a weigh room full of iconic figures like Richard Dunwoody, Adrian Maguire, Norman Williamson, Jamie Osborne and Graham Bradley. Nine days shy of his 41st birthday, he will walk out of one that is unrecognisable in comparison.

"My valets have become my mates in there," McCoy confides, "because, with the exception of Noel (Fehily), Dickie (Johnson) and Lenzio (Andrew Thornton), the rest of them are half my age. They're nice lads but I'm a different era to them."

McCoy's Spartan dedication to the cause has transformed the profession. He has set the benchmark for others to aspire to, yet he doesn't feel that the standard of riding is any higher.

"Jockeys eat better and lads go running now but, at the same time, there isn't the depth of talent that was there in the past. When I started, there was up to 180 licensed jockeys, now there is around half that. So there is no doubt that, while the likes of Noel and Dickie and Tom Scudamore and Jason Maguire are among some very good riders, there is not as many of them.

"And it's the same in Ireland. You have Barry Geraghty, Ruby Walsh, Paul Carberry, Paul Townend and Davy Russell, but I don't think there is the same depth to it now."

McCoy's near final tally of 4,348 wins is untouchable. Over the past two months, starting with that memorable Hennessy Gold Cup success at Leopardstown on Carlingford Lough, he has chipped in with swansong triumphs at all the big meetings.

At every remove, he has displayed remarkable patience and good grace as selfie and signature hunters lined up en masse. In times past it might have been a chore carried out hastily through gritted teeth.

"I have really appreciated it," he says sincerely of the reception. "As you get older you appreciate things and realise you have no divine right to be champion jockey. I have felt in the last five or six years how lucky I am to have done what I have done and lived the life that I have."

He remains at a loss as to what will fill the void, conscious that the novelty of overdue family time with his Galway-born wife Chanelle and their kids Eve and Archie will wear off. An outlet will need to be found for the ferocious intensity that chiselled all those memorable triumphs on lost causes like Wichita Lineman, Edredon Bleu and Synchronised at Cheltenham, Pridwell at Aintree or even plain old Family Business at Southwell.

"I haven't a clue," he says of the next step. "Honestly. It's scaring me. I will take the summer off and then figure it out. It will have to be something that will get me up in the morning and motivate me, but I don't know what the future holds."

In the short-term, it holds a final farewell to a sold-out and doubtless emotionally charged Sandown, where he will strive for one last marquee victory on Mr Mole, the quirky enigma on which he conjured that fateful 200th win at Newbury. We might even be treated to one more of those jaw-dropping occasions when McCoy bends a reluctant partner to his will.

Next week, the rest of his life begins. He might not know what that entails, but it will start with a visit to Robbie McNamara and his cousin JT, two gifted horsemen whose plights have affected him deeply. It is all part of the pact that jumps jockeys silently sign up to, but watching your friends and colleagues lose their lives and the use of their limbs never gets easier. Even for a steely warrior like McCoy.

"It's tough, what do you say to guys like that?" he ponders. "I talk horses when I visit JT, and Robbie has come on golfing holidays with us over the last few years. Seeing him is going to be hard. It will certainly make me realise that I have little to be worrying about.

"Unfortunately it's part of the sport. The first brush I had with it was when Richard Davis got killed at Southwell in 1996. He was a conditional at Toby's when I was there. That was the first time I really noticed how dangerous this sport is, and sadly I have witnessed it a lot since - too many fatalities and serious injuries. You go out every day and hope that it is not going to be you, but the reality is that it could be you.

"Hopefully I am going to be all right (today) and that will be the end of it."

Once more unto the breach, then. Godspeed.

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