Donn's Articles » AP McCoy – The Sunday Times

AP McCoy

AP McCoy is sitting easily on the couch, suit jacket draped over the chair beside you, top button open, tie long gone. He had three rides at Ascot today, one winner, a typical AP McCoy winner: fifth turning for home, fourth at the second last, still eight lengths behind the leader at the last, got up on the line to win by a short head. Try telling the people who backed Un Ace that the champ is not riding as well as ever.

The idea of retirement this season first came up at Punchestown last April. He told his boss JP McManus then that this might be his final year. If he was lucky enough to be crowned champion jockey again this year, he said then, that would be 20, that would be a good number. That might be a good time to go out.

He says it nonchalantly now, 20 times champion, over 4,300 winners in the bag, and we take it for granted. It is only when you step back from it for a second that you can realise the emormity of his achievement. Try to think of another sportsperson who has been champion 20 times, for 20 years in a row. Not easy.

For as long as he has been riding in Britain, McCoy has never not been champion. Champion conditional in 1994/95, his first year riding in Britain, he was champion jockey the following year, and the following year, and every year since.

“I often think that I would have enjoyed it more if I hadn’t been champion from the start,” he says easily. “The big driver for me was always the fear of not being champion. Every winner was another tick, another notch, and then I was quickly onto the next winner. And after every championship, the scores were back to zero at the start of the next season, and we were off again.”

In many ways, that is also the driver behind his decision to retire now, at the end of this season.

“I would be lying if I said that I didn’t think about going on and trying to ride 5000 winners. But that’s another 600 winners or so, that would be another two and a half or three seasons if all went well. I would be 43 or 44. Would it really be the thing, to be a jump jockey at the age of 43 or 44? You don’t want to carry on for too long. That’s the big worry.

“I’m happy with how I am riding now. I don’t think I’m riding any differently to how I was riding, say, five years ago. I’m not any better, but I’m not any worse, I’m not any fitter, but I’m not any less fit. But I always wanted to go out when I was riding well. And that is the most difficult thing to do. How many sportspeople retire when they are still performing well? Usually it’s when someone gets the edge on you or when someone wins your championship. The dip in performance will come, that’s for sure. No sportsperson can go on forever. Most people wait for the dip to come, then call it a day. I always said that I wanted to go out before the dip.

“The biggest problem in my life is being champion jockey. It’s great, and I am so proud of what I have achieved, but it has effectively ended my career. If I started the season again, I’m not arrogant enough to think that I would definitely be champion jockey, but I would start again as I always start, going wherever I needed to go for rides, Sedgefield for one ride, Cartmel for two. This is the goal, this is how it works. I’d love to change my name and roll back into the weigh room, start again, see how I would get on. Unfortunately I can’t do that.”

This is the public AP McCoy the sportsman, the horseman, the competitor, the driven champion. The man who got Pridwell up to beat the great Istabraq in the 1998 Aintree Hurdle. The one who lifted Wichita Lineman home from an improbable position in the 2009 William Hill Trophy. The man who cajoled and encouraged Synchronised all the way from the top of the hill to the winning line in the 2012 Cheltenham Gold Cup. The most successful National Hunt rider of all time. This is the man we see, every day, last week at Chepstow and Wincanton and Huntingdon and Ludlow, today at Fairyhouse, tomorrow at Fairyhouse, on Thursday at Aintree.

We don’t see the private AP McCoy too often, the giver, the Tiny Tickers ambassador, the patron of Alder Hey Children’s Hospital, the man who sat with Luca Nash and his parents all afternoon the day before the 2011 Grand National meeting, the man who took JP McManus’ advice to announce his intention to retire early so that racing could glean whatever benefit it could from his final two months.

A ruthless 20-time champion, yet highly regarded by all: punters, peers, colleagues, trainers, owners, opinion leaders, sports stars from other walks. Even his competitors speak warmly of him. Former weigh room rival Jamie Osborne said that he tried to dislike him, but failed.

The idea of retirement seems to rest fairly easily on McCoy’s shoulders now. His wife Chanelle tells him that it is the correct decision. His close friends Carl Llewellyn, Mick Fitzgerald and Richard Hughes say that his timing, as ever, has been impeccable. A letter from Sir Alex Ferguson says the same thing.

AP himself says that it is not that difficult now, simply because he is still riding, because today and tomorrow he will weigh out and get legged up in the parade ring. The difficult part will be when he is not riding any more.

“The thing will be when I leave racing, and my valet Chris Maude brings all my gear around to the house. I’ve got 16 saddles, God knows how many pairs of racing boots. The Foxes in Ireland have four saddles belonging to me, and all my boots there. When it all arrives back and it’s sitting there, that’s going to be the biggest shock.”

Tomorrow, when he rides Cantlow in the Irish Grand National, he will be riding in the Irish Grand National for the last time. Next Saturday, when he rides Shutthefrontdoor in the Aintree Grand National, he will be riding in the Aintree Grand National for the final time.

If he doesn’t win the Aintree National on Saturday, he will end his riding career at Sandown on Saturday 25th April. If he does happen to win the National on Shutthefrontdoor, however – and he is 7/1 favourite to do so – that will be it. He will dismount in the winner’s enclosure at Aintree and finish, right there and then.

That would be a fitting and remarkable end to one of the most outstanding sporting careers of all time.

© The Sunday Times, 5th April 2015