At Sandown Park last Saturday an era ended. Twenty thousand of us turned up to cheer on Tony McCoy as he took his last two mounts and collected his 20th trophy as champion jumps rider. We cheered, we clapped, we decided there was nothing to be ashamed of about a certain moistness of eye, noting that even the ultimate iron man himself wept a tear or two as he rode back on the third-placed Box Office.
Over the past 20 years, the riding of racehorses has become ever more professional, but not once during that period has anybody else been champion jockey over jumps. For once the old cliché works: we will never see his like again.
Just look at the statistics: AP rode in 17,630 races and won 4,357 of them, an extraordinary strike rate of 24 per cent. Two great champions before him, Peter Scudamore and Richard Dunwoody, rode 1,678 and 1,699 respectively. Only last year he reached the quickest century of winners ever, by 21 August. Inevitably, he holds the record for the most jumps winners ridden in a season at 289: he had hoped to bow out with 300 this year, but lost that chance when injury sidelined him for several weeks.
Nowhere in the sport, however, will you find resentment or jealousy at AP’s achievements: there is only wonder at his application and will to win on stages big and small. A non-drinker and nowadays the proud father of Eve and Archie who, along with wife Chanelle, have tempered his obsessiveness he is a model sportsman: modest, professional and just plain likeable. Typically, AP’s first week of retirement will include visits in Ireland to two badly injured jockeys, cousins Robbie and JT McNamara.
AP’s own body has paid a price. Not only has he starved his 5ft 10in frame for 20 years, boiling himself like a lobster in hot baths, but his thousand racecourse falls occasioned punctured lungs, a broken leg, a broken arm, fractured vertebrae, shoulder blades, ribs, collarbones and cheekbones. My abiding memory of him will be at Ascot on a November afternoon in 2012. The day before AP had been kicked in the face at Wetherby. His injuries required the extraction of two teeth and hours of work by a plastic surgeon stitching up his mouth and nose. But because he wanted to ride the promising My Tent Or Yours, McCoy had insisted on having no general anaesthetic. His face, swathed in medical tape, was a ghastly pallor. Trainer Nicky Henderson was only half joking when he told us, ‘I wanted a jockey, not the Phantom of the Opera.’ No one else would have ridden that day, but McCoy’s high pain threshold, sheer guts and all-consuming thirst for winners ensured that in the next few minutes My Tent Or Yours became his 101st winner that season. Typically, when he broke back vertebrae and endured kriotherapy (the blasting of freezing nitrogen in an icy chamber) to get back in the saddle in time for Cheltenham, he set a new record for the low temperatures he endured. When his aide Gee Armytage was running the London Marathon, he asked, ‘Are you going to win?’ and when she replied in the negative he followed up, ‘So why are you doing it?’
We all have our favourites among his great rides. McCoy himself includes his extraordinary defeat of the mighty Istabraq on the quirky Pridwell in the 1998 Aintree Hurdle, the Grand National victory for his chief patron JP McManus on Don’t Push It in 2010 and Synchronised’s victory in the 2012 Cheltenham Gold Cup after a bad jump at the first forced him to niggle and squeeze and cajole for three miles to get the horse back on terms. Like many I would add his 2009 Festival victory in the William Hill Chase in 2009 on Wichita Lineman. Again he nursed the horse around through a series of blunders then rallied him at the end to win in the last stride. There was a similar effort on Edredon Bleu when he inched past Direct Route in the shadow of the post in the 2000 Queen Mother Champion Chase. Thanks, AP for so many wonderful memories and thank God he has not quite literally ridden himself into the ground.
It won’t be the same without him, but racing has a way of renewing itself. AP’s last race was won by Richard ‘Dickie’ Johnson, the man who has 16 times finished runner-up to AP and whom every sportsman in racing would like to see win the championship now before a new generation takes over. Among them in time will surely be Sean Bowen, the 17-year-old phenomenon who won Sandown’s Bet365 Chase on McCoy’s last day and who was appropriately presented with his prize as the year’s champion ‘conditional’ by McCoy. Sean wasn’t even born when McCoy won his first championship, but as Paul Nicholls said of his ride on the tricksy winner Just A Par it was a waiting race that had taken ‘balls of steel’ to execute. AP would surely have approved.
You might disagree with half of it, but you’ll enjoy reading all of it. Try your first 10 weeks for just $10