Racing: When a hot bath can be a weight on a winner's mind

The Tony McCoy interview: Torture as well as triumph consumes a peerless champion. Andrew Longmore talks to a master of discipline and control about his fears
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The Independent Online

It is the ritual of the hot bath which melts racing's iron man, the thought of another day at odds with his body. Tony McCoy is five feet 10 inches tall and his natural weight is 11-and-a-half stone. Yesterday, he rode at 10 stone six. He will ride at 10 stone if the horse and the race are worth it, but the preparation will take a week. It is a matter of discipline and control, he says. So, pretty well every morning, he soaks in a scalding tub for an hour to dry out an already dessicated frame. Hot baths are meant for pleasure. But, for McCoy, this is pure pain. He emerges hot and dry, like microwaved food.

"I don't mind admitting that at times I've practically started crying at the thought of getting into it," he says. "I'm always going to be fighting my body, I'm not going to wake up suddenly one morning a stone lighter. But, each morning, you think, "Not again, why am I doing this?" It's torture physically and as bad mentally. But I don't begrudge it because I know there are 20 other lads in here who are doing the same thing to ride horses that have no chance of winning."

His glance takes in the emptying weighing-room of Newbury racecourse. Only the valets are left and a few conditionals, racing's neo pros, filtering in after the last race, cursing into mobile phones. Most of them ignore the champion talking quietly in the corner. He is where they want to be and, for all the new sense of democracy in racing, the weighing-room maintains its natural order. McCoy himself learnt that during his apprenticeship one day at Newton Abbot. He was pushing hard for the conditional championship at the time, but not having much luck. Saddles were hurled on to seats after each race, whips shoved into kitbags with the force of an irate golfer. Across the room, Brendan Powell, even then one of the weighing-room's wiser statesmen, watched with increasing dismay.

"There weren't many runners that day and yet Tony had four or five rides while most of us in there only had one or two," Powell recalls. "That was our living and there he was behaving like a prat. So in the end I just said, 'Who the hell do you think you are?' "

Actually, he probably said something much stronger, but the effect was devastating. McCoy has never looked back, dominating National Hunt race-riding with an ease and a completeness unparalleled in any other sport. With his main rival, Richard Johnson, sidelined for three months, McCoy has only statistics for company now, and even the record books are beginning to plead for mercy. Powell laughs about it. He once finished fourth in the jockeys' title with 68 winners.

By the time McCoy had pushed Billingsgate home for Philip Hobbs on Friday afternoon, the six-time champion had clocked up 167 winners and the real winter season is only just beginning. And clocked up is right. McCoy rides winners with the stone-cold certainty of a cab meter. Each day, another click.

McCoy rode three winners at Taunton on Thursday. But what did he think about on the drive home? "I got beat three-quarters of a length in the novice chase and I knew somewhere in the race I could have saved that ground." The video was not much help, but he will have found a way by the time he rides the horse again. Richard Dunwoody's wife, Carol, once reflected that the dominant sound of her doomed marriage was the whirring of the video on rewind. McCoy is single, has resolutely remained so, but we are crossing the same border.

"Riding winners is everything in life," he says. "It's taken over." The difference is that he can see the hopelessness of the pursuit. "It's very sad. Another day, another three winners and it's on to tomorrow. It's difficult in that I'm not sure that in 10 years' time that I won't look back and say why didn't I enjoy my winners more. If some of the guys in here rode three winners in a day, they'd party for a week, but it's got to the stage now where it's expected of me. I probably rode six favourites at Taunton, so if I don't win some races, I feel I've let everyone down." That is as near an admission of pressure as you will get from A P McCoy.

But there is something more to it now than the endless accumulation of cut-glass decanters. Racing, a haven of bitchiness, resentment, bravery, character, devotion, tenacity and individuality has begun to acknowledge its champion with a near-single voice. A major meeting at Cheltenham recently turned into a solo exhibition of the art of race riding. Over three days, McCoy rode seven winners, including Shooting Light in the big race, and when the champion somehow survived a last-flight blunder on Westender, clinging to the horse like a circus rider before pushing him home to win by two lengths, the emotion of the moment spilled out over the winners' enclosure in one big tidal wave of recognition.

McCoy was fêted as if it was springtime and he had just won the Gold Cup for Ireland. "I never noticed that before, you know," he says. "I did feel the warmth when I was walking away and the crowd started applauding me. But Cheltenham is different from any other racecourse. It brings out the best and I love riding there."

For McCoy, to be so celebrated in jump racing's spiritual home was a symbol of acceptance, the end perhaps of a painful struggle with his sport. Not that long ago, McCoy was being suspended so consistently for whip offences he was considering buying a villa in Spain for his winter holidays. It seemed he could never find the right balance between wanting to win and wanting to win too much.

"I'm embarrassed now by the way I used to ride," he says. "I won't look at the video. I'm tidier now, more professional, much more confident in myself. I'm every bit as strong, but I think I have a better understanding of the horse. I know what a horse can give me and I know how many smacks he needs and whether he's running for the smacks. I used to worry that people might think I wasn't strong enough and I wanted to make sure they could see how strong I was. Now I can go out and be as strong as anyone without a stick."

In the weighing-room, jockeys will gather round the television to watch A P. "We find it impossible," Timmy Murphy said recently in an interview in the Racing Post, "to understand how he can drive a horse for so long without either he or the horse getting tired. If the rest of us did that, the horse wouldn't get home."

Yet McCoy says he has never done a day's training in his life. "It's just race riding, like footballers talk about match fitness," he explains. "I'm lucky, I suppose. I ride more horses than most."

Inexorably, with racing's acquiescence, McCoy is being drawn into the ultimate quest. In 1947, Sir Gordon Richards rode 269 winners in a season. With luck, no injuries, good weather and steady ammunition from the arsenal of Martin Pipe, McCoy could just – and the maths says it is "just" – break the record. McCoy is interested, for sure, but then he is interested in riding at Kelso tomorrow, the one course where he has never ridden a winner. "Can I ride near on 100 winners between now and the end of April?" the question is asked of himself. "I don't think anything is impossible. At Taunton the other day, the first thing the press asked was what about Gordon Richards' record. I'm mentally racing myself, day in, day out, but I also seem to be racing a legend who's not around any more, as well as every pressman in the country. I don't think I'll ever live it down if I don't do it." The thought tickles him, but it is an excuse. McCoy will count down the numbers. The chase is on.

But observe McCoy for an afternoon and you will notice another telling aspect of a champion at work. It was not the typically confident ride he gave Philip Hobbs' Billingsgate which caught the eye at Newbury on Friday, it was the circuit-long pushing and shoving required to persuade a reluctant juvenile called We'll Make It to win the princely sum of £419 for finishing fourth. The winner was long gone and away, but McCoy's determination to fulfil his duties whatever the prize provides one obvious explanation for his popularity. And when the other jockeys had disappeared into the comfort of the weighing-room, McCoy was still in the unsaddling enclosure talking to the connections.

"He rode for me at Fontwell recently," says Brendan Powell. "We finished second and he was still there talking to the owners and me long after the first and third had gone back to the weighing-room. The owner rang me up the next day and thanked me for the day. Talking to Tony had made him feel 10 feet tall."

McCoy, true to his humble roots, regards it merely as giving value for money. "I've got a better understanding with owners and with people," he says. "It's very difficult for trainers and it helps a lot if a jockey spends time with the connections. They're the ones paying the bills and they have every right to have your attention."

McCoy himself deserves wider acknowledgment, some commercial support from outside the narrow confines of the weighing-room perhaps or, failing that, a place on the shortlist for the BBC Sports Personality of the Year.

From the shy teenager first enlisted by Toby Balding, one of the shrewdest judges of riding talent in the game, McCoy has become an articulate spokesman for his sport, no longer just a set of cheekbones beneath a helmet. "It sounds strange and people say, 'Oh yeah'. But recognition outside racing doesn't really bother me. I meet a lot of other sports people who are interested in racing and I get a lot of pleasure out of them thinking I'm good at what I do. But I'm not sure fame is all it's cracked up to be."

Obeying the command of Mrs Martin Pipe to smile more is about the sum of McCoy's pursuit of even a fraction of the riches earned by his friends Steve McManaman and Robbie Fowler. Total relaxation is not in his repertoire. He was due a day off today and was looking forward to it. So what happened? "Well, there's this real good mare and the trainer asked me to ride her at Fairyhouse on Sunday. You can't turn down a good ride." Take Monday off then. The look is three parts bafflement to a pinch of disdain. "I'll take my day off next Sunday. I'd much rather be out there riding three or four horses, most of which haven't got a chance of winning, than sitting at home knowing I've got no chance of winning."

Those close to racing's relentless grind watch McCoy's face for signs of strain. "You look at him sometimes and think, 'Jeez, what is he doing?' " says Brendan Powell. But McCoy is undaunted, unable to conceive of a day when he is no longer champion. "I can see why Lester Piggott never wanted to give up," he says. "If you're riding good horses, it's such a great way of life." Lester Piggott, Gordon Richards? The comparisons are no longer so fanciful.

Biography: Anthony Peter McCoy

Born: 4 May 1974, Moneyglass, Toomebridge, Co Antrim.

Marital status: Single.

Favourite racecourse: Cheltenham.

Racing heroes: Lester Piggott, Martin Pipe, Arkle.

Other hobbies: Football and golf.

Best horses ridden: Gloria Victis, Viking Flagship, Edredon Bleu, Make A Stand, Mr Mulligan.

Most successful season: 253 wins, 1997-98 (NH record).

Best advice given: 'Get a one-way ticket to England... and don't come back,' from Irish amateur trainer-jockey Paddy Graffin.

Early ambition: 'To walk out at Highbury with the Arsenal No 9 shirt on my back'.

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