Into every reign a little rain must fall
Steve Dennis looks at some of the low points in an exceptional career
First published on Thursday, April 23, 2015
The highs have made him the most successful jump jockey in history and arguably the greatest exponent of his art ever seen, but it has not all been sunshine and roses for AP McCoy despite 20 championships (and the conditionals’ title). Into every reign a little rain must fall, and the undisputed king of the weighing room has had his share of low moments down the years. It may not make pleasant reading for the man himself, but the consolation will be that the highs outnumber these lows by a considerable – around 4,350 – margin.
Almost certainly the only drawback of being retained by JP McManus is the occasional dilemma of choice between two horses with strong chances, especially at the major meetings. This occupational hazard was thrown into stark relief at the 2014 Cheltenham Festival, when McCoy was faced with two important choices and got them both wrong.
He chose My Tent Or Yours ahead of Jezki in the Champion Hurdle, and for all his urgings could not push his selected past his rejected on the run-in, going down by a neck. Barry Geraghty was the fortunate substitute then and again two days later, when McCoy sided with At Fishers Cross in the World Hurdle and passed over More Of That. This time the margin of defeat was wider but the prick of anguish just as acute, potentially made worse by the World Hurdle’s status as one of the very few big races McCoy has never won.
His first encounter with the surgeon’s expertise and a bout of enforced idleness came on a freezing January morning on Jim Bolger’s Coolcullen gallops. The fractious, fresh Kly Green was playing up a little and the 18-year-old McCoy, with one Flat winner to his name, bore the brunt of his excess energy.
Kly Green barrelled down the gallop into a wooden fence and McCoy was hurled to the ground, the result being a first exposure to excruciating pain that would lend itself to comparison throughout his career and a broken tibia and fibula that put him under house arrest for four months.
The upside was an intimate knowledge of the daytime TV of the moment, the downside a substantial increase in weight – from 7st 7lb to 9st 2lb – and the steady evaporation of a career as a Flat jockey. That may have hurt at the time, as much as the broken bones, but McCoy appears to have made the best of it.
Yes, we all know about Don’t Push It, but before that the Grand National was a source of annual disappointment, with victory often seemingly within grasp until the fickleness of fate decided otherwise.
Clan Royal was travelling strongly at second Becher’s in 2005 only to be stopped in his tracks by a loose horse and put out of the race, but that setback evidently paled into insignificance when set against the events of four years earlier. The race had been disassembled by a right pile-up at the Canal Turn first time round and only a bare handful remained in contention, including McCoy aboard Blowing Wind.
“Blowing Wind was the worst, much worse than Clan Royal,” he said in a Racing Post interview. “So many had got wiped out at the Canal Turn, the reins had gone over Beau’s head, there were only three or four of us left.
“I thought Blowing Wind had really taken to the race. I think on that day he’d probably have won a National.”
Instead, he and McCoy finished a remote third behind Red Marauder after remounting following the unwanted attentions of a loose horse, one of the many, and the long wait went on.
Deaths in the afternoon
One of the worst things for any jockey to have to deal with is the death of his horse and, although it is too poignant to dwell upon for long, there have been several high-profile deaths that have affected McCoy very deeply. Valiramix in the 2002 Champion Hurdle, Gloria Victis in the 2000 Cheltenham Gold Cup, Synchronised in the 2012 Grand National and Wichita Lineman in the 2009 Irish Grand National are only the most public ones, and their passing is imprinted on McCoy’s psyche. “You become a jockey because you love horses, they’re the reason you do it, and although I’ve become able to deal with it better, death still has an effect. When Wichita Lineman was killed, I just cried.”
Under the whip
In the early stages of his career, McCoy’s unquenchable desire to win led to confrontation with the stewards over what they considered his too-liberal use of the whip, although he was adamant his riding style had not changed from his previous, presumably acceptable, action. The whip bans began to accumulate, building at the same level as his frustration with the authorities over what he perceived as victimisation, and a public demonstration of McCoy’s displeasure with the situation came at Cheltenham after he had ridden Cyfor Malta to win the 1998 Murphy’s Gold Cup.
As he returned to the winner’s enclosure with a face like thunder, he angrily threw his whip into the cheering crowd, no doubt reflecting that if he wasn’t allowed to use it, he might as well get rid of it altogether.
Every time we say goodbye
McCoy’s professional relationships have been of long standing – not for him the game of musical chairs, more the slow process of becoming contentedly accustomed to a comfortable, squashy, shiny-smooth armchair by the fireside.
He spent seven years as stable jockey to Martin Pipe, and described the wrench of quitting Pond House at the end of the 2003-04 campaign to take up the same role with Jonjo O’Neill as the most difficult decision he has ever had to make in his professional or personal life, both in the knowledge that he might be compromising his chance of being champion and in the severing of a hugely successful and satisfying connection. There were tears when he met the Pipes to tell them of his decision, and although that decision was understood and accepted the loyal McCoy was deeply affected by the very process of changing allegiance. To move on, we have to leave something of ourselves behind; McCoy moved on.
Since his first season as a fully fledged jockey, McCoy has left every Cheltenham Festival with at least one victory to his name – apart from 2005, when he drew a complete blank at the first four-day meeting. He had four rides on the Tuesday, best placing fourth; four rides on the Wednesday, best placing fifth; five rides on the Thursday, best placing second on Baracouda in the World Hurdle; five rides on the Friday, best placing ninth.
Such a public whitewash at the biggest meeting of the year is almost unbearable; McCoy’s mood on leaving the course that Friday evening would have been dark indeed. In several seasons he has had to make do with just one winner from a host of fancied rides – 2003, 2007 and 2009 spring readily to mind – but at least there was a degree of consolation amid the frustration. For a man of McCoy’s mien, it’s not all about the taking part.
300 up – and then down
At the start of what has turned out to be his final season, this man of many milestones set his sights on the possibly impossible target of 300 winners in a season. McCoy’s best seasonal return was 289, and he had actually ridden 300 winners during a calendar year (2002).
This season he started as he meant to go on, setting an unrelenting pace at the top of the table, passing the 150-mark on October 15. That victory at Wetherby proved more notorious than meritorious, however – in winning, McCoy aggravated injuries that had lingered since a fall at Worcester the previous week, when he dislocated a collarbone, cracked two ribs and sustained a punctured lung, and although he persevered painfully for a couple of weeks he eventually had to call a temporary halt to his winner chase.
McCoy’s schedule and pain threshold had combined to keep him in the saddle – “I know I shouldn’t have done, but I wanted to ride 300 winners and I couldn’t afford to have the days off. It was purely mind over matter and the body doing what the brain was telling it rather than the other way around” – but now he was forced to spend time on the sidelines and with the consequent three-week spell of inactivity went his hopes of reaching 300 winners.
Battle of the bulge
He stands 5ft 10in in his riding boots, and McCoy has spent his entire career trying to weigh the same as someone five inches shorter. This remorseless exercise of will has required a constant regime of starvation and privation that would have driven most normal people insane, characterised by a heartbreaking process of daily blanching in a parboiling bath in order to eliminate excess poundage. There have been tales of McCoy in tears on his bathroom floor after another bout of torture by bathtub, and although after 20 years the process must now be no more than mechanical, it will be the one thing that McCoy most certainly will not miss about no longer being a jockey. Asking his tailor to let out his waistband by a notch will come as a relief in more ways than one.
Riding into the sunset
Sunday, the first day of the rest of McCoy’s life, may well be one of the worst of his life. Ever since announcing his decision to retire, McCoy’s attitude has been that of the condemned man waiting to hear the executioner’s approaching footsteps, a brave smile playing about his lips, resigned to his impending fate but still too soon, too soon.
No change in his professional life will have had the seismic effect he’ll experience when taking off a set of silks for the final time at Sandown on Saturday. It puts one in mind of the last words in the biography of Lester Piggott, written by Dick Francis before his subject’s outrageous return to the saddle. How long would you have gone on being a jockey, if you could? mused Francis. A thousand years, answered Piggott. McCoy knows what he means.
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