Flight of the boy wonder

All bets are off as an easy rider turns the jump jockeys' championship into a one-horse race. Sue Montgomery reports
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The impact made by Tony McCoy on the jump racing scene in the past two and a half years has been little short of sensational. Champion conditional jockey in his first British campaign, overall champion last term, and such a runaway leader this time round that the bookies have stopped betting on the title outcome with more than half the season still to come.

The young Ulsterman's rise to fame in his chosen field has turned a few heads, but not his. He is perfectly aware of his special talents, but has remained as balanced in his mind about his comet-like progress as he is in his body on the back of a horse. He has confidence and self-assuredness aplenty, but arrogance has not tagged along for the ride.

It was, ironically, a fall from a horse that sent McCoy, 22, along his present path. The son of a joiner and horse breeder from Toomebridge, the centre of Ireland's eel-fishing industry on the banks of the Bann, he can never remember not being able to ride and as a titchy 15-year-old left school to join Jim Bolger's mighty stables in Co Carlow. Three years later he snapped a leg in an accident on the gallops, an injury that kept him out of action for five months but in retrospect might be viewed as a lucky break.

"I'd started off as a Flat apprentice, because I was too weak and light to be a jump jockey," he said, "but I began to grow and put on so much weight while I was off that the decision was made for me. I stayed at Coolcullen for another year, but the thought of coming to England was always there. That's where the opportunities were."

Enter his guide and mentor over here, Toby Balding. The experienced, pragmatic Weyhill trainer, looking for a youngster to bring on, had been tipped off about the boy from Co Antrim. He went to see him ride at Wexford, liked what he saw and, almost as important, what he heard from McCoy himself.

Balding said: "I met him, and he met well. He has a good, sensible head on his shoulders, and is prepared to listen to and use the advice of the people around him. He has something that is comparatively rare, an absolutely natural racing brain. He gets himself and the horse in the right place at the right time. In terms of actual experience, he is still inexperienced - he had had just one ride over fences when he arrived with me - but the progress he has made in such a short while has been unprecedented.

"He has absolute determination and dedication, which he shows daily. The difficulty is persuading him to have a day off. I finally did so on Thursday, and what did he do but spend it schooling horses down in Epsom. But that is one reason he is what he is; he has that hunger."

Balding, the two other trainers who have agreements with McCoy, Paul Nicholls and Philip Hobbs, and his agent Dave Roberts are conscious that a talent such as his must be guarded, not squandered, and they are aided by a maturity of attitude beyond his years from the man himself.

McCoy found himself in the right place at the right time, a period when the top man, Richard Dunwoody, had decided to take a pull and go for quality rather than quantity, and when Adrian Maguire (another Balding discovery) and Norman Williamson were plagued by injury. He said: "If anyone had forecast that I was going to be champion jockey in my second season in England I would have burst out laughing. But I have been exceptionally lucky in everything, and the people around me.

"It has all happened very quickly, and success has taken me a bit by surprise. I don't think I'd even now be a household name like the top jocks, but if people are talking about me I don't mind. I'm not afraid of the limelight; I can cope with it. I know I've got plenty to learn. Every time I ride I try to learn something, if I make a mistake I'll try to correct it next time. I'm certainly not the complete jockey yet. There's much more to come, at least I hope so."

Although McCoy was an unknown when he arrived in England with just 13 winners on his card, his four years with Bolger, one of the best teachers in the business, had given him a grounding second to none. Study of some of the best stylists - Frankie Dettori, Michael Kinane, Jamie Osborne, Dunwoody - was part of his curriculum, as was the opportunity to ride work on some top-class horses, including the Classic winners St Jovite and Jet Ski Lady.

Over the past two years McCoy has shot up two inches to 5ft 11in. He can, at a pinch, ride at 10 stone, though Balding prefers him to stay a bit heavier to avoid the stresses of wasting. The trainer said: "Ability- wise, what you see is what you get: he is neat and tidy and, even though he is tall, can get low in a finish. If he has a fault, it is his arm action in a finish and the stewards have had a few looks, but he is not especially hard on a horse."

The likeable, approachable McCoy, a non-smoking tee-total Arsenal supporter and a fairly private person, has ridden twice as many winners as his nearest pursuer David Bridgwater this term and will, if not this week certainly next, smash Peter Scudamore's record to the fastest century in a season.

Inevitably, he was courted to take the vacancy as Martin Pipe's stable jockey when Bridgwater left earlier this year and the powerful West Country stable has given him many winners, but, with the guidance of the aforementioned back-up team, the status will remain quo, at least for the moment.

During his brief enough career over jumps McCoy has so far avoided serious injury. The numbers are flowing, and the big-race winners are certain to follow. He deputised for Maguire on two for David Nicholson at Aintree in March, Zabadi and Viking Flagship, but has the highest hopes that Nicholls's exciting novice chaser See More Business will be the first "big horse" of his own.

He does not himself try to analyse the natural gift that gives him such an empathy with horses and makes him able to get them to run for him, just thanks his lucky stars that it is there, allied to a fiercely competitive spirit. "It is a job, but it's the best job in the world. I love the thrill of riding, and of riding winners, and think about little else. I get an unbelievable buzz from the speed and the partnership with a good, brave horse. Its like a fix of adrenalin, and the more you do it the more you want to do it. You get greedy for it."

Jump jockeys, who risk serious injury or worse every time they go to work, are traditionally regarded as brave. But McCoy added: "I don't consider myself brave. But then, I've never been frightened."

Grand tradition: The last six jump champions

Tommy Stack: Career 1965-78. Champion twice (1974/75, 1976/77). Best win: Grand National (Red Rum 1977). Best season: 97 winners (1976-77). Number of centuries: 0.

Jonjo O'Neill: Career 1970-86. Champion twice (1977/78, 1979/80). Best wins: Gold Cup (Alverton 1979, Dawn Run 1986), Champion Hurdle (Sea Pigeon 1980, Dawn Run 1984). Best season: 149 winners (1977/78). Number of centuries:Three.

John Francome: Career 1970-85. Champion seven times (1975/76; 1978/79; 1980/81-1984/85). Best wins: Gold Cup (Midnight Court 1978), Champion Hurdle (Sea Pigeon 1981), King George VI Chase (Wayward Lad 1982, Burrough Hill Lad 1984). Best season: 131 winners (1983/84). Number of centuries: Five.

Peter Scudamore: Career 1975-1993. Champion eight times (1981/82; 1985/86 - 1991/92). Best wins: Champion Hurdle (Celtic Shot 1989, Granville Again 1993). Best season: 221 winners 1988-89. Number of centuries: Eight.

Richard Dunwoody: Career 1983- . Champion three times (1992/93 - 1994/95). Big-race wins: Grand National (West Tip 1986, Miinehoma 1994), Cheltenham Gold Cup (Charter Party 1988), Champion Hurdle (Kribensis 1990), King George VI Chase (Desert Orchid 1989, 1990, One Man 1996). Best season: 197 winners (1993/94). Number of centuries: Seven.

Tony McCoy: Career 1990- . Champion once (1995/96). Best season: 175 winners (1995/96). Number of centuries: One.