Racing: McCoy: the mighty man with the 10-year plan

Click to follow
The Independent Online
The jump jockey Tony McCoy is charging towards domination of his sport at an alarming rate. His critics say he will fall victim to burnout. McCoy says maybe, but not for 10 years.

As he marches contemptuously through this his fourth season in Britain, Tony McCoy is closing in on 600 career winners. At this remorseless rate the Irishman will not only beat Peter Scudamore's career record of 1,678 winners, he will exceed it by a further 1,000 at his anticipated point of retirement in 10 years' time. A P McCoy describes Richard Dunwoody as the most obsessive jockey in the weighing room. He must be joking.

Anthony Peter McCoy has ridden so many winners already that he seems to have been around for a generation. It is quite arresting, however, to consider that his first ever hurdles race, at Leopardstown, was on the day Jodami and Mark Dwyer won the Cheltenham Gold Cup. Since then there has been the conditional jockeys' championship in his first campaign over the Irish Sea, followed by two titles among the fully-fledged ranks. Earlier this year McCoy, aged 22, became only the fourth man to ride the winner of the Champion Hurdle (Make A Stand) and Gold Cup (Mr Mulligan) at the same Cheltenham Festival. His booking is now generally accepted as providing his mount with a fifth leg.

Yet his achievements do not count as a speck of grit for Tony McCoy. As the bandwagon rolls on, he would prefer to crack the whip on the team ahead rather than look at the mileposts in his slipstream. "I don't want to look back or even think about the present and how I'm flying, because that's the moment you fall over and make yourself look like a clown," he says. "Your luck can only last a certain amount of time, so you're frightened to look back and see how long it's been going on. I've been very lucky so far. What matters to me now is tomorrow, what I'm going to ride on Saturday and possible winners at Cheltenham this season." And, of course, the Christmas sales of his recently published biography.

If you look in the past, though, you find what has made this near mechanical man before us. The son of a Catholic horse breeder from Toomebridge, Co Antrim, McCoy was brought up as one of six in buccolic Ulster, close to the inland sea of Loch Neagh and on the banks of Northern Ireland's longest river, the Bann.

By the time he was 12, McCoy was an unfettered truant, spending most of the day at the yard of a local man, Billy Rock. He could ride, and control, the biggest horses almost immediately and would earn pounds 100 a week for his effort. "He could do the work of three grown men," Rock says.

McCoy was not a daft lad, but the subject he enjoyed most was not on the school curriculum. He left at 14 without a single O-level to his name and joined the Flat yard of Jim Bolger. Coolcullen has produced some mighty racing names, both human and equine, and none was brought up gently. If anyone is caught smoking at the yard, Jim Bolger does not ask the staff to form a seated circle to discuss the topic. He boots the miscreant out. McCoy does not smoke to this day and the strongest brew he takes is diet coke.

The jockey found his master as terrifying as a tiger in the bedroom and it is testimony to his fortitude that he disobeyed Bolger in moving to Britain in 1994. By then the tyro had broken his leg on the Coolcullen gallops, an accident that erased any lingering notion that McCoy would appear on the Flat. During recuperation his body started to change and did not stop until it reached its present shape, as if its owner had been splayed on the dungeon rack while a particularly nasty shift was on.

McCoy's favourite steaks and chops are now off the carte du jour (although the way things are going they may soon be off all our menus). The jockey has attempted the black techniques of pee pills and sticking his fingers down the throat, but now just settles for surviving on various natural gases. "My weight is a worse problem than for most jockeys because I'm five foot 11 inches," he says. "But I've got used to it and I can live with the fact that, for the rest of my days riding, I'm never going to wake up in a morning and have a fried breakfast. It just won't happen."

His physique apart, Tony McCoy is made notable by a jutting chin, snooker hall complexion and the sort of retro haircut they used to display in bands such as Chicory Tip. He has a capacity for self-sacrifice that comes to few. For him the grind, the hunger and the travelling of his sport is surpassed by the rewards, financial and emotional, of winning. "You've got to want winners, be greedy, and I don't mean being ignorant greedy," he says. "You've got to want success every day, and when you get it that makes you greedy for some more."

There are some who believe the McCoy way does not foster a lengthy career, that the starving, 70,000 miles travelling a year and high expectation will soon put him in the sidings. The jockey himself, who would rather have a finger off than a day, snorts at this theory.

"I can't imagine there is a single jockey in the weighing-room who wouldn't like to be sufferimg from the sort of burn-out I'm supposed to be getting at the moment," he says. "I love going racing every day, especially as I usually get two or three really decent chances. I think a lot of people get more burned out thinking about what I'm doing than I do going through it.

"I can cope with feeling as burned-out as this for the next 10 years if things keep happening for me. There will plenty of time for me to relax in 10 years' time when I can't ride horses any longer. But tomorrow is another day, never mind 10 years' time. If I keep riding consistently for another 10 years I'll be the happiest man alive, but when you're a jump jockey your fingers are permanently crossed.

"This is a game that becomes obsessive and when you ride winners consistently it's something you want more and more of every day. Anyone in my position would become obsessive too, but maybe it was being that way that got me here in the first place."

l The Real McCoy. Hodder & Stoughton pounds 16.99.