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AP McCoy

Pridwell the first to rise three out, from Kerawi, but here’s Istabraq ridden confidently on the near side, about to be produced by Charlie Swan, then Shooting Light behind them. They come to the second last, Pridwell on the far side, rapped the top of that, so too did Istabraq in second. They’re four or five lengths then to behind them, battling on, Kerawi. They race up with one flight left to jump, he says go on Istabraq now, ranges up to tackle Pridwell for the lead, now the race on in earnest, as they touch down together. Istabraq on the near side gaining the upper hand now from Pridwell. They’re about 15 lengths in front of Kerawi. A real slog to the line, but it’s Istabraq who’s sticking his neck out well on the near side. Pridwell is fighting back, Pridwell coming back at Istabraq, Pridwell on the far side, grabbing a narrow lead close home, and Pridwell has got up to win, he’s pulled it out of the fire …

AP McCoy is sitting on the couch in front of you, talking about his decision, his timing.

“No sportsperson can go on forever,” he is saying. “That’s for certain. We know that. I would love to think that I could go on riding horses forever, but I can’t. The end is going to come. And for every sportsperson, sooner or later, no matter how good they are, their level of performance starts to decline. It’s inevitable. The dip is going to come at some point. I didn’t want to go on too long. The last thing anyone wants to see is an ageing sportsperson who has gone on too long.”

It’s a compelling argument. Tiger Woods does not dominate the golf world like he once did. Steven Gerrard is not the first name on the Liverpool team sheet any more. But the difficulty is in pre-empting the dip, to walk away when you are still as good as you have ever been. And to watch AP McCoy ride these days, the dip is nowhere in sight.

He is still as fit as he ever was, still as strong as he ever was, still as tactically astute as he ever was. And he is still as hungry. It’s not that he doesn’t want to do it any more. Ask him about the upsides, about giving up the travelling, the wasting, the hot baths, the falls, the broken limbs, the dangers, and he shakes his head slowly. He would do it all for another 20 years. If he could change his name and wander back into the weigh room in anonymity, he would. If he could go on riding under a different name, not AP McCoy, not 20-time champion jockey, he would do it in a heartbeat. But he can’t. The time is now.

“I thought that, if I got to 20 championships this year, that would be a good number,” he says. “I mentioned it to JP (McManus) at Punchestown last April, that this could be my last year. And I talked about it with Dave (Roberts, his agent) before I announced it at Newbury. We decided that, if I rode my 200th winner of the season, that that would be a good time to announce it.”

Ideally, there would not have been any run-in. He would have dismounted after his last ride at Sandown next Saturday, and he would have said that’s it. There would not be this two-month-long farewell, there would not be this two-furlong run-in. But JP suggested to him that it would be good for racing if he had a long goodbye, if he gave people a piece of him for a little while. It may take him an age to get from his car to the weigh room these days, but he can see the merit in it.

“I remember when I was a kid, if I asked any sportsperson for their autograph, it had a big impact on me if they gave it to me, or if they refused. So I try not to refuse anybody. If I am lucky enough that people think enough of me to want my autograph, I am delighted to oblige. And if that is good for racing, well that’s good as well isn’t it?”

Mistake by Wichita Lineman there, almost paid the penalty, good recovery by horse and rider … Wichita Lineman still being patiently ridden in about 10th or 11th place now for AP McCoy, as they take that last fence on the far side, and Wichita missed out that fence, he blundered his way over that just when trying to make up some ground … Wichita Lineman is not making much impression and, again, a shoddy jump by the favourite … Wichita Lineman is trying hard now for AP, goes into fifth place … And Wichita Lineman, he stays forever, he engages overdrive now, here he comes on the outside. It’s Maljimar, Nenuphar Collonges and Wichita Lineman, here’s the final fence. Maljimar in front, Nenuphar Collonges, Wichita Lineman, and then Dear Villez back in fourth place. Up the hill, Maljimar, Daryl Jacob, by two lengths here, from Nenuphar Collonges, Wichita Lineman. Maljimar needs the line, 50 yards left to go, here comes Wichita Lineman with a chance. He gets there, Wichita Lineman for AP McCoy …

So how do you become the most successful National Hunt rider in the world, ever?

Here’s how.

When you are three, you sit up on your dad’s mare, Misclaire, and you have your photograph taken so that, when you ride your 4000th winner, people can dust down the photograph and pinpoint the time and the place at which it all began.

When you are six, you ride the arm of the sofa in the sitting room, you ride Gold Cup winners and Grand National winners, you ride finishes, whip flailing and everything, and you just get up on the line every time.

When you are eight, you have your dad bring you down to Mrs Kyle’s riding school. Then you have him buy you your first pony, Seven Up, so named because of the number of times the mare drops you every day.

Then you have him get you another pony, a better pony, Chippy, whom you name after your hero Liam Brady. (You’re an Arsenal fan.) You build a few fences and you make a jumping course for yourself on the grassy patch in front of your house. You compete at gymkhanas and you win trophies and rosettes, but all the while you want to go faster.

When you are 10 you start going up to racehorse trainer Billy Rock’s yard on Saturday mornings with your dad. You are fascinated by the racehorses, captivated by their power, and you leap over the gate when one day the trainer asks you if you want to sit up on one.

You ride the quiet horses at first, you fall off as often as you stay on, but you don’t care. All you want to do is get back up. Gradually, the trainer starts putting you up on better horses, on more difficult horses, and you surprise yourself at how well you can handle them. You hear back that, if ever one of the professional jockeys is having trouble with one of Billy’s horses at the racetrack, Billy tells them that Wee Anthony has no trouble with the horse at home.

You start going up to Billy’s more often. You cycle the 11 miles there and the 11 miles back. You would walk bare-footed there if you had to. You go up every Saturday and every weekday during school holidays. Then you start going up some weekdays when there are no school holidays. The teachers start to notice. The principal at St Olcan’s is concerned. He is worried that you will not pass your GCSEs. He asks you and your mum to come in to see him.

“He has to pass his GCSEs,” you hear Mr O’Grady say to your mum. “He needs his GCSEs if he is going to get on in life.”

Your mum nods in knowing acceptance.

“Young man, what do you want to be when you grow up?” the principal asks you.

“A jockey,” you mumble as only a 14-year-old can mumble.

“A joiner?” says Mr O’Grady. “Well, there you go. You’re going to need your GCSEs if you are going to be a joiner.”

“Not a joiner,” you say quietly. “A jockey.”

Synchronised once again is just found wanting for pace. And turning for home, out in front, it is Time For Rupert. The Giant Bolster, Burton Port and Long Run now threaten to throw down challenges, Synchronised is staying on for pressure. Two from home, The Giant Bolster moves to the lead in the Gold Cup from Time For Rupert and Long Run, Burton Port can’t go on. And down towards the last, it’s The Giant Bolster who leads, Synchronised is coming home strongly with the white face for Tony McCoy, and Long Run jumps alongside as well. Synchronised, who was flat to the boards early, has fought his way to the front, Long Run battling on the far side, and The Giant Bolster. But it’s Synchronised who’s come right from the back of the field to win a dramatic Betfred Cheltenham Gold Cup. Synchronised, for AP McCoy …

It is difficult to put into context the extent to which AP McCoy has dominated National Hunt racing in the modern era. You say over 4,300 winners, you say 20-time champion. It rolls off the tongue, you know the figures by now. You don’t need to think about it too much. But try.

Fred Winter was champion jockey four times. Terry Biddlecombe was champion jockey three times. John Francome was champion jockey seven times. Peter Scudamore was champion jockey eight times. Richard Dunwoody was champion jockey three times. All top class National Hunt riders, all dominant in their era. But none of them come close.

For as long as he has been riding in Britain, McCoy has never not been champion. He was champion conditional in 1994/95, and he was champion jockey the following year. And every year since. John Bruton was Taoiseach in 1995, John Major was British Prime Minister, Bill Clinton was American President. Jack Charlton was manager of the Irish football team. That’s how long ago 1995 is.

Figures and statistics are key for McCoy – that is why he was so disappointed when injury ruled out his drive for 300 winners this season – but it isn’t just about figures. His strength in a finish is the quality to which people usually refer when they talk about McCoy, but there is much more to him as a rider than that. He is also a superb judge of pace, he is as tactically astute a rider as there is who can see a stride a fence away. He talks about persuading horses to run, not bullying them. More convincing horses that they want to go forward for him. He is the complete horseman.

And there is much more to AP McCoy the man than just AP McCoy the jockey. Ask wife Chanelle and kids Eve and Archie, who are looking forward to spending more time with him. Ask the many lodgers who have passed over the McCoy threshold. Ask the children at Alder Hey hospital. Ask the members of the weigh room, rivals and colleagues. Ask trainers, owners, charity event organisers. Ask anyone who has had any dealing with him, in fact. McCoy is a giver. Generous with everything, including that most precious commodity, his time.

Of course, he will miss it. He will miss riding almost as much as we will miss him riding. He is not quite sure how much. He thinks that it has not fully hit him yet. He is still riding. Today, he will walk into the weigh room at Ayr and get ready to ride Sea Lord in the Scottish Champion Hurdle. He says that it is probably only when he actually stops riding that it will hit him. When his valet Chris Maude comes around to his house and gives him his saddles and his riding boots. When the Foxes return the saddles that he has had in Ireland for years. What do you do when you move on from something at which you excelled?

“One of the reasons why I said I wouldn’t train is because I might not be any good at it! I have always been happy on a horse, but I never thought that I was better than everybody else. And I think that’s down to the grounding that I have had, first with my mum and dad, then with Billy Rock, with Jim Bolger, with Toby Balding, with Martin Pipe, and now with Jonjo O’Neill and JP and Noreen McManus. I have been very lucky to have been with great people during my career.”

So what’s next?

“I am a firm believer that, in order to have any amount of longevity at anything, in order to be successful at anything, you have to love what you are doing. It’s easy to be obsessed with something you love. I’m never going to find anything that I’m going to enjoy as much as I enjoy riding horses. So you have to be a realist and try to find something that you enjoy. What that may be, I have no idea. Honestly, I have no idea.”

Even so, you feel that the champ is comfortable with his decision. He is comfortable that this is the time to say goodbye. On his own terms, his own decision, when he is still at the very pinnacle of his career. As ever, his timing is impeccable.

Black Apalachi is not lying down, but Tony McCoy senses his National wait is about to end as Don’t Push It looms alongside and leads at the last in the National … Off up the run-in, it’s Don’t Push It and Tony McCoy, Black Apalachi fighting back grimly on the inside. Don’t Push It in front, ears pricked, idling, Black Apalachi trying to preserve the run up the inside. But Tony McCoy, the winning-most National Hunt rider of all time, has waited a long time to land his first John Smith’s Grand National. Firsts all round, Tony McCoy, JP McManus, Jonjo O’Neill, Don’t Push It won the National …

© The Irish Field, 18th April 2015