Peter Thomas charts the high and low points of McCoy’s National record
First published on Saturday, April 11, 2015
Unfinished symphonies (1995-2000)
By no means can the early years of McCoy's Grand National quest be said to have been laced with promise. If the 1995 fall of Martin Pipe's Chatam at the 12th fence was initially regarded as a mere blip for the season's champion conditional rider, the following four years served as fair warning that the road to Aintree glory might well be a long and winding one.
At least Deep Bramble stood up in 1996, although when he pulled up lame before the second-last the end result was pretty much the same for McCoy. His only missed National came in 1997, but the following season – by which time he was fully fledged champion and ensconced as Pipe's stable jockey – was to provide a disastrous focal point for 15 years of hurt.
Challenger Du Luc was Pond House's number one hope and billed as the kind of quirky beast who might just respond favourably to the idiosyncrasies of the big race. True, he had earned himself a reputation as a perennial runner-up who required a work of genius from the saddle to get his head in front, but he was a class act, a 12-1 shot with a second place in the King George already to his name that campaign.
He fell at the first, while Earth Summit and Suny Bay battled out the finish.
The fatal fall of the well-fancied Eudipe at the second Becher's in 1999 cast an altogether darker shadow over McCoy's early National efforts, and precious little illumination was provided by the third fence departure of the following year's 9-1 favourite Dark Stranger, whose clumsiness gave the young genius his first 'UR' in the race.
These were not the memories he would have been hoping for, and the frustration was not about to end any time soon.
Wind section (2001-2002)
If the first six years of McCoy's National mission were fruitless, the seventh went completely bananas as Pipe's Blowing Wind charted a haphazard course to the frame.
Had the World Mud Wrestling Championships been scheduled to be held at Aintree on April 7, 2001, competitors might have been forgiven for objecting to the extremity of the conditions; it was certainly no place for staying chasers to give their best, and 36 of the 40 runners found different ways of avoiding completing the four and a half miles of slog.
Blowing Wind was soldiering on in third when he was hampered at the 19th fence and refused. He may have breathed a sigh of relief at joining the legions making their way back to the stables at a walk, but not for long, as McCoy, never one to desert a lost cause, rejoined the fray along with Ruby Walsh on Papillon (unseated at the same obstacle) and made his way towards the finish at a hack canter.
Smarty had narrowly escaped the carnage and plodded on regardless into second, at a slightly slower rate than the blundering Red Marauder, whose catalogue of jumping errors added another twist of irony to his improbable success.
According to the Racing Post, Red Marauder "reached exhaustion point that bit later than Smarty", who practically walked over the line, while Blowing Wind's pedestrian third place might best be described as remote, or ugly, but at least it was worth £55,000.
Debates over whether this doubtful stayer would have reached the places had the race not collapsed around him were answered the following year on good ground, when his stamina ran out two from home and he faded to finish 29 lengths behind Bindaree, again in third.
The perception may have been that McCoy was inching ever closer to that elusive first Grand National win, but that belief owed more to his mighty stature as a champion than to events on the Aintree turf.
Distant views of the finish on Blowing Wind were swiftly followed by a pulled-up effort on Iris Bleu and a fall at the fourth on Jurancon, before the craziest National of the era (or at least the craziest since 2001 or 1967, depending on your definition of crazy) saw his luckless quest take on a new public momentum.
It was 2005, and McCoy's tenth stab at the race, when Clan Royal entered the fray as a well-touted 9-1 shot after finishing runner-up to Amberleigh House the previous year under Liam Cooper. What happened next, however, was the kind of ten minutes to provoke more conspiracy theories than Jack Ruby and the freemasons put together.
First came the broken breast girth and the slipping saddle in the early stages of the race, which were soon forgotten as the free-running chestnut bounded into the lead at the Chair and was seemingly still full of beans when disaster struck at Becher's second time.
Heading to the fence six lengths clear he was steadily nudged to the outside by a loose horse, at which point McCoy managed to switch inside, only for the pesky creature to change direction and veer wildly across the track, blocking his path and forcing him over to the inside rail, where the rider was unceremoniously jettisoned by his hapless mount.
There was every chance that Clan Royal's exuberant running style would have led to him running out of puff in the closing stages, with eventual winner Hedgehunter staying on so powerfully, but fate decreed that he was a winner waiting to happen the following year and he was sent off a 5-1 joint favourite (alongside Hedgehunter).
He ran boldly again, this time under greater restraint and unhindered by loose horses, only to fall seven lengths short of his target, behind Numbersixvalverde and, yes, Hedgehunter.
Rhapsody in green and gold (2007-2009)
By now, McCoy's personal quest to ride a National winner had become a very public matter, with all agreeing it would be a tragedy of immense proportions if the great man were to reach the end of his career with this yawning gap in his list of achievements.
His principal patron, JP McManus, plainly concurred and, after the failures of Clan Royal, set about providing a full catalogue of choices for McCoy in every succeeding year.
The classy L'Ami led the charge, figuratively at least, but finished tailed off in 2007, while the by-now annual debate over which of JP's team would carry the white-capped champion jockey twice led to the answer 'Butler's Cabin', and twice ended in anti-climactic defeat.
The magnum opus (2010)
There was no doubting the result the historians were clamouring for as McCoy set off for his 15th assault on the National: success for JP, AP and Jonjo, the Holy Trinity of Irish jump racing, was the only one that would fit the bill, and finally the top team delivered, thereby ending a wait so breathless it looked set to cause an entire nation to go blue in the face.
Unsurprisingly, Don't Push It was backed into 10-1 favouritism on course and, despite the unnerving presence of earplugs on the way to the start and clear signs of over-heating, soon showed that for once this was a public gamble based on solid foundations. He travelled sweetly, seemed to fall instantly in love with the fences and, ultimately, dispelled all doubts about his stamina.
A slight error five from home was the only minor blip, and he soon shrugged that off to lead at the last, responding generously to both the demands of the occasion and his rider's understandably vigorous urgings to finish five lengths clear of Black Apalachi.
At last the quest had ended, and not before time. Perhaps McCoy would never have announced his retirement if he hadn't won the Grand National; perhaps he would have died of old age at Aintree 40 years down the line; perhaps we would all have spontaneously combusted with the annual drama of it all. We shall never know, because the job was done.
"To win the biggest race in the world means everything," said McCoy afterwards. "At least I can feel now that I've done all right."
Calls for an encore (2011-14)
Anything after 2010 was going to be an anti-climax, although a repeat for Don't Push it in 2011 would have raised the Aintree roof again, shortly after it had finally been nailed back down. It wasn't to be. The 11-year-old did everybody proud again, plugging on gamely into third.
Sadly, the fate that befell Synchronised the following year was a more tragic one, with the previous month's Cheltenham Gold Cup hero unseating the champion on the way to the start and cantering loose, before being remounted and falling at Becher's first time, running riderless and seemingly unharmed before suffering an untreatable leg fracture when attempting to jump the 11th.
The tabloids had a field day for a second year running but in very different circumstances. Connections were devastated at Synchronised's death and he was buried at McManus and O'Neill's Jackdaws Castle yard.
The following season passed by more quietly, with Colbert Station unshipping McCoy at the Chair, while last season Double Seven carried him into his fourth third place, little more than six lengths behind Pineau De Re.
Double Seven was sent off a 10-1 joint favourite, which may pale into insignificance behind the price of Shutthefrontdoor today. McCoy's Grand National hoodoo may have been sent packing, but the legend of the man and the race will linger long after he leaves Aintree for the final time.
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