No jockey, not even Lester Piggott in his pomp, or loveable Frankie Dettori, has ever won the BBC Sports Personality of the Year contest. If horses were eligible, it's fair to assume that Red Rum's name would be on the venerable trophy. Arkle and Best Mate might have made it, too. But public affection is less gushing for jockeys than it is for their mounts. That is the obstacle, even more formidable in its way than Becher's Brook, that Tony McCoy must surmount if he is to take the stage at the LG Arena in Birmingham at around 8.55 on Sunday evening as successor to Ryan Giggs, not to mention all the other illustrious names dating back to 1954.
On the other hand, this is the year in which the 15-times champion jump jockey won the Grand National, at the 15th time of trying. And since the great steeplechase transcends racing, indeed transcends sport, there might be a sentimental vote for McCoy even from those unaware of what it takes, of the sacrifices he has made and the bones he has broken, to stay at the summit for 15 consecutive years.
Whatever, the bookies have installed him as favourite for the BBC award, and it is that status that I rather apologetically raise in the racecourse manager's office at Folkestone, moments after he has failed to win the ladbrokespoker.com Beginners' Steeple Chase this week. Apologetically, because I know that McCoy is not a man who craves the limelight, and I imagine he's enjoying all this Sports Personality hype about as much as he would persistent toothache.
"Well, I would never complain," he says, in his soft County Antrim accent. "But I do feel a little awkward about it. I love doing my job, and I love just getting on with it. I said to someone the other day that I'd love to be able to give up and come back and ride under another name, so nobody would pay any attention to me. But no, I would never complain. I'm flattered that there is any interest in me at all, let alone as much as I've been getting."
We'll come back to the Sports Personality razzmatazz, but for now let's recall the achievement that put him on the shortlist of 10. It is nothing short of scandalous that he had never made the list before, having broken Sir Gordon Richards' record as the most winning jockey of all time as long ago as 2002, but never mind all that. How satisfying is it for him, following his victory on Don't Push It in April, that people like me can no longer quiz him on how much he yearns to win the elusive Grand National?
The ghost of a smile. "Yeah, that question has gone for all time. But it was an interesting topic, and people had every right to raise it. I know I'm not a better jockey for having won the Grand National. I know that my greatest achievement was breaking Sir Gordon Richards' record, which had stood for 55 years. I knew then that I must be an OK jockey, and no disrespect but a few fellas won the Grand National that I don't think could ever have been champion jockey. But, for all that, it was still the best day of my racing career. And it was great to win it for [trainer] Jonjo [O'Neill] – he'd been champion jockey a couple of times and didn't even get round the Grand National – and for [owner] JP and Noreen McManus. They are unbelievably in love with horses and you find very few people who are in racing for that reason. The only problem I have with JP is that he wants to take the horses home with him. He just loves looking at them, making sure they're OK."
After McCoy had ridden Don't Push It to an impressive second place over 3.3 miles at Cheltenham in November 2009, the handicapper Phil Smith told him that he might just have ridden his Grand National-winning horse. But in his next few outings Don't Push It was disappointing, and just two days before the National, McCoy still wasn't sure of his ride. He phoned O'Neill and asked whether he should take Don't Push It, or another of McManus's horses, Can't Buy Time. "Jonjo said he'd toss a coin, then came back and said Don't Push It. But he told me later that he'd never tossed the coin. He just had a feeling that Don't Push It was the one."
Two weeks earlier, the favourite for the big race had been yet another McManus horse, Arbor Supreme. "I thought 'should I be riding the ante-post favourite?' Don't Push It was, like, 50-1. But he took so much money after that, and I remember as clear as day walking round at the start, talking to David Casey, who was riding Snowy Morning. I said 'how am I going to take the slagging from people telling me I've got beat on another Grand National favourite?' Both of us were laughing."
Some 25 minutes later, he knew there'd be no more slagging, yet the significance of the occasion didn't hit him until his old boss Martin Pipe, and Ruby Walsh's father Ted, reached him. "Seeing the emotion on their faces, that's when the emotion got to me. I almost don't like looking back because I know I will never have a day in racing like that again, and that's sad. It's impossible to describe it, really. Afterwards I went in JP's box, and two good friends of mine, Robbie Fowler and Steve McManaman, were there, with Jason McAteer, who said that Robbie and Steve had been really emotional. I think of people like that, superstars, with the level of success they've had, and they're emotional for me..."
He trails off, and I wonder at the genuine modesty of this remarkable man. Heck, is he even looking forward to Sunday evening, and the plaudits that might rain down on him? "Yeah, I am looking forward to it. It's an accolade in itself being in the top 10, with nine other fantastic people who have done unbelievably well in their sports."
True enough, but none of them, I venture, have pushed themselves quite as he has done. I don't expect him to agree, and he doesn't let me down. "We all make our own sacrifices. That level of success has a lot more to do with will than skill. And the sacrifices might not be physical. Mentally, to stay at the top is draining, because you're constantly looking at what's going on around you. Look at Lee Westwood, one of only two world No 1s while Tiger Woods has been playing. Look at Phil Taylor, 15-times world darts champion. I don't think there should be any favourites on Sunday night. If it was a 10-runner horse race I think we should all be the same price."
Will he, though, be just a teeny bit disappointed if he takes the stage as third, or second, or not at all? "Well, in sport you like to win. But this isn't sport. How I do is not in my hands. I love being champion jockey, but I don't really see myself as a sports star, and certainly not a superstar." His solemn brown eyes crinkle with a small show of mirth. "At the end of the day an ambulance is going to be following me around in my next race, so I can't be that super."
If this most reluctant of superstars doesn't yearn to win Sunday's contest for himself, then what about his sport? Not for nothing have the movers and shakers in racing relentlessly championed him. "Well, yeah, it would be great for racing if I were lucky enough to win. And racing has given me such a good life I would feel as though I'd done a little bit in return. It's given me an amazing lifestyle, I've met some amazing people I couldn't have dreamt of meeting when I was a kid. My two heroes growing up were Lester Piggott and Liam Brady, and now I consider myself on very friendly terms with both. How many people ever get to be that lucky? I've even been lucky enough to play golf with Tiger Woods."
That was at Adare Manor in Ireland in July, at the JP McManus Invitational. "He was amazingly good company," says McCoy. "Mick Fitzgerald played too, and Ruby was my caddie, and even though Tiger obviously knew nothing about horse racing, he took a great interest in our lives. It wasn't just a question of asking a question and that's that, he really wanted to talk about the injuries, about rehydration ... he's obviously always wondering how people in other sport might go about things. And meeting him made me realise that you should never judge someone until you meet them."
As for McCoy's own judgment of himself, it has improved in recent times. "For eight or 10 years I was obsessed with records. I was very wrapped up in myself, and I knew it, but riding more winners than anyone ever had meant more to me than what anyone else thought of me. Even my mother used to abuse me for being miserable." A chuckle.
"I feel like a much nicer person now."
However nice he is, though, and whatever his thoughts about Sunday's vote, all jockeys take at least a bit of notice of what the bookies say. So will he have a victory speech prepared, if only in his head?
"No," he says. "Look at the past winners of that award. Ryan Giggs, the things he's achieved. Joe Calzaghe, an undefeated world champion. Sir Steve Redgrave... I'm not into rowing but I know you don't win five gold medals without being as mentally and physically strong as anyone can be. A speech? No, I'm not that presumptious."Reuse content