James Lawton: Redemption for peerless jockey after year of hurt
Wednesday 15 March 2006
They dressed Tony McCoy and Brave Inca in the Irish Tricolour but really it was victory that went beyond even the tribal passions that invade this English valley each year. It was something that a man keeps forever. It was, above all, about the life's work of a rider whose need to win had never been as frustrated as it was here for four days of racing calvary last year.
McCoy's reaction to winning the Champion Hurdle, a race he last claimed nine years ago, would have been extraordinary in some youthful prodigy of the jockeys' room.
In a man who has acquainted himself so relentlessly with the sensation of winning, for whom it has become an unshakeable addiction, it was the extravagant expression of sheer relief that his trial at the greatest testing ground of National Hunt riding was finally over.
He had thought this was so an hour earlier when he presumed, a heartbeat or two too early, that he had delivered for J P McManus the first win of the great festival. But as his Straw Bear stretched for the line, he was engulfed by the brilliant finish of his compatriot Ruby Walsh on Noland.
McCoy came into the unsaddling enclosure with a face as thunderous as any he wore last year when he went those bitter days without a taste of victory. Then, he reported: "My peg in the jockeys' room was next to Richard Johnson's. He didn't have a winner either, and you can imagine what a bundle of laughs we were. After each race we looked at each other and said, 'What the hell's going on'?"
Yesterday, the world of Tony McCoy was perfectly synchronised again and it helped in his moment of Cheltenham redemption that he and the eight-year-old he had marked down, as an article of faith, a certain winner, had to triumph in a race which captured all the courage and the beauty of this greatest of all gatherings of horses and men.
McCoy and Brave Inca moved beautifully on to the endlessly brave double winner Hardy Eustace as they came to the final fence, and when they powered their way up the most inquiring piece of rising ground in all of equine sport, the jockey's joy was so tangible it might have been lit by neon. He raised his whip to the crowd, and then pumped it repeatedly. It was a celebration of more than one win. It was deliverance. Part of the relief, no doubt, came from the force of McCoy's conviction that he had chosen the winning horse. He had made a statement of great boldness and, when he got past the post, perhaps deep down, he was also celebrating a spectacular vindication; certainly Cheltenham's suspicion that Brave Inca represented poor value at 15-8 and 7-4 was contradicted by the widely circulating belief that McManus, perhaps the ultimate arbiter of such matters, considered the odds not at all ungenerous.
If that was the reported extent of the confidence of McManus, who was also rumoured to have made a six-figure bet on the eight-year-old, maybe McCoy might have felt a certain obligation to prove himself as good a judge as rider.
When he hit the rising ground, however, he and Brave Inca made it all seem much ado about the blindingly obvious. Conor O'Dwyer and Hardy Eustace had certainly fulfilled their obligation. There would be no easy retreat from the old glory, and the defending champion came into the bravest of third places, behind Macs Joy.
For trainer Colm Murphy there was also the sweet sense of hard judgements bringing the reward of an ultimate success. He said: "Tony McCoy is as tough as old nails, just like this horse. As Ted Walsh said, the horse would have to be dead two days to stop battling and McCoy would probably carry on riding if he had no arms or legs.
"Replacing Inca's former rider Barry Cash with Tony wasn't a decision you would want to make. Barry made the horse, did all the schooling and we wouldn't be here today without him."
But, then, who knows where they would have been without McCoy in the mood that gripped him in the shadow of Cleeve Hill yesterday? When irked by too many questions about his blank run here last year, he protested that it was just one of those occasional combinations of circumstance, trying as it was at the time.
No, it didn't burrow under his skin. It didn't leave him restless in the night and edgy in the dawn. It didn't seem like the end of something to which he had become unbreakably accustomed.
Yes, everyone agreed. Then they watched him deliver Brave Inca and were reminded that often the greatest celebrations come after the deepest hurt.
Indeed, McCoy was celebrating more than one great win. It was more in the way of a re-birth.
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