Tony McCoy: 'There are always things you regret when you don't win... mostly you wish you'd ridden another horse'

Brian Viner Interviews: One ambition dominates the thinking of the most successful National Hunt jockey of all time, and that is winning the only significant race that has so far eluded him - the Grand National
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The Independent Online

Not least of the reasons why Tony McCoy wants to win the Grand National is to stop people asking him how desperate he is to win the Grand National.

Aptly, he takes roughly the same view as the manager of his favourite football team. When Arsenal's Arsène Wenger was asked this week whether he was obsessed with winning the Champions' League, he said: "I'm not specifically obsessed with it but people always expect from you what you have not done."

So it is with McCoy and the Grand National, and the question will pursue him all the way to the start at Aintree. He is heartily sick of it, but he is a courteous man and answers it politely every time. Not for McCoy the death stare that Colin Montgomerie, for instance, habitually aims at anyone who asks him whether he is frustrated at not having won a major golf championship. But then the analogy is not quite right: McCoy has won practically everything there is to win in National Hunt racing. The only jockey to come within even 650 winners of him is the long retired Richard Dunwoody. Only the Grand National eludes him. And it is no coincidence that that capricious filly Lady Luck has a bigger say in the outcome of the National than in any other race. The higher the skill factor in a race, the more likely A P McCoy is to win it.

"There are much better jockeys than me who never won it," he says, when I, too, ask the inevitable. "John Francome, Jonjo O'Neill, Peter Scudamore, just to name three. Obviously I would love to win the Grand National, it's one of the greatest sporting events in the world. But you do need a lot of luck. And you need to be on the right horse."

Which begs another inevitable question: is Clan Royal the right horse? After all, McCoy and Clan Royal led last year going to Becher's the second time round, before a couple of riderless horses got in their way.

"Well, I wouldn't want to swap him for any other, put it that way. He's been around there lots of times before. He's won over the National fences, and he's been second in a National. He was going really well last year, but what happened to him proves what the Grand National is all about."

McCoy has ridden in the great steeplechase 10 times. He is not one of those who considers it the blue riband race: for him, as for so many others, the Cheltenham Gold Cup stands supreme.

"But as a spectacle, and from the public point of view, the National is the one. I would rather ride the winner of the Gold Cup, given the choice, but then I've already done that [on Mr Mulligan, in 1997]. The National is on its own in that there is no other horse race where you have stands overlooking the start. From that point of view it's totally different, and very exciting."

He had his best chance to win the National, he thinks, on Blowing Wind in 2001. It was a riderless horse that did for him then, too, and he remounted to finish a distant third to Red Marauder. Are there things, I wonder, that he thinks he could, should, have done differently? Held back? Pushed on? Hugged the rails? Gone wider? How much does it nag at him, this celebrated perfectionist, when the Grand National of all races does not go to plan?

"There are always things you regret when you don't win a race," he says. "Always things you wish you'd done different. Mostly," he adds wryly, "you wish you'd ridden another horse."

It is safe to say that J P McManus, the owner for whom McCoy is retained to ride for a handsome sum, does not harbour the same regrets of his jockey. Theirs is a relationship bonded not by the close friendship that McCoy enjoyed with his former employer, Martin Pipe, but by immense mutual respect.

"I talk to J P a lot on the phone, not on a daily basis because he's a busy man, but we keep in regular contact. He's very, very keen on his horses, and National Hunt racing is very lucky to have him. Martin and I have been the best of friends and that will always be. I've great respect for him, and I know that the one thing you should never do is write him off. He doesn't have the quality or quantity of horses he normally has, and it certainly looks as if Paul Nicholls is going to be champion trainer, but you never know. I was very lucky to work for Martin for that length of time. But to be honest I had always been interested in working for J P McManus. If I hadn't done it at some stage of my career then I would have been disappointed."

It is McManus through whom McCoy has encountered one of his great sporting heroes, Tiger Woods. Not all great sporting figures in their own right - as McCoy unquestionably is - admit to being in awe of others. But mention Woods and the 10-times champion jockey, golf handicap 14, grasps for superlatives.

"He's amazing, an amazing person. There's someone analysing him every second of every day - he can be in anyone's company and there'll be someone analysing him - but he just takes it all in his stride. He's a brilliant professional. He's just... different. I met him at J P's golf tournament during the summer, and no matter where he went, someone wanted to meet him.

"There was never a time when there weren't people trying to get near him. Amazing man. And the one thing I've learnt from watching him is that after winning however much he had, he still wanted to change his golf swing because he felt it wasn't good enough. It shows that no matter how good you are, you can always get better."

How, then, does he strive to get better? "I've got much stronger in my upper body. I have to keep improving because the standard of people coming along is improving too, all the time."

McCoy turns 32 next month, not old for a National Hunt jockey, although in the end it might be his height rather than his age that counts against him, in the sense that the only way he can keep his 5ft 10in frame lean enough to race is to employ starvation tactics, and spend at least an hour a day in a hot bath or the sauna. It would be a gruelling enough lifestyle without the possibility of serious injury, or worse, that confronts him virtually every day. Is there a bone in his body that he hasn't broken? "There must be one somewhere," he says, with a chuckle. "I'm very lucky," he adds gravely, "because I am well paid. It's the lads further down the line that I feel sorry for. They put their lives at risk every day for much less financial reward than others get for taking much smaller physical risks.

"I don't like to think about it but being a jump jockey is very dangerous. I've had friends of mine killed. As Frankie Dettori says, there are not many sports where the only thing you see when you look behind you is two ambulances. But then jockeys do it because they love doing it, not because of the money. Everyone would like to be paid more, but if it was for the money they'd be doing something else..."

It is significant that McCoy says "they" rather than "we". In more ways than one he is a man apart from his fellow jockeys. And yet that doesn't stop him being one of the more popular guys in the weighing-room, and it is well-known in racing circles that if a jockey is hospitalised, the first of the fraternity to visit him will invariably be the man they all call A P.

But this image of a caring, sharing McCoy is at odds with his reputation as a ruthlessly driven hard nut. "I wouldn't say I'm ruthless," he says, when I ask him if he enjoys this reputation and perhaps plays up to it?

"But I would certainly say I'm driven. I just think that there's no point if I'm not going to win. I will get no enjoyment out of riding in the National if I don't win. If Clan Royal jumps well on Saturday, that won't do anything for me if he doesn't win. I might as well be watching from the stands. So, yes, I'm driven by the desire to win. But there are lots of things that drive me. Sometimes I think it's fear more than anything else, fear of not beating the others."

Remarkably, this complex and extraordinarily single-minded Northern Irishman is not the only sporting legend to come from the tiny village of Toomebridge in deepest County Antrim. Toomebridge also produced a certain Willie John McBride, and it is a marvellous coincidence that 1974, the year in which McBride led the British and Irish Lions to one of their greatest triumphs, against the fearsome Springboks, was also the year in which the infant McCoy first set eyes on the world. For a small backwater in Country Antrim, it was a hell of a year.

"I've met Willie John a few times," McCoy tells me. "He was born within a mile of where I was born, and I know he's an absolutely amazing man, although I don't remember seeing him playing rugby, unfortunately."

The sporting pin-up of his childhood, in fact, was Liam Brady, and McCoy remains as passionate as ever in his devotion to Arsenal. "I was at Highbury for the first leg against Juventus, and they were just fantastic. You've to admire Arsène Wenger so much, but also the Arsenal scouts for bringing in some of the players they have. Obviously there are one or two who were quite expensive, like [Jose Antonio] Reyes and [Aleksandr] Hleb. But look at people like [Kolo] Touré, [Emmanuel] Eboué, [Cesc] Fabregas. The way those three played last week they could get into any team in Europe. And then there's Thierry Henry..."

McCoy tails off, lost for words in his admiration of the fabulous Frenchman.

I remind him that Henry featured in the fantasy golfing fourball that he was invited to name by the BBC last week. "Ah yes, Thierry Henry, Tiger Woods, and Charlize Theron, because you'd want something good to look at..."

McCoy does not mind making cracks which might just earn him a dig in the ribs from his fiancée, Chanelle, whom he will marry in September. What difference will marriage make to his life, I ask. "Absolutely none," he says. "Absolutely zero." Is the lovely Chanelle aware of that? "She's very aware." No concessions whatsoever? "None whatever."

And yet, there will surely come a time, maybe with fatherhood, when even if the Grand National does not lose its allure, the 2.20 at Kelso will. At any rate, he can't go on for ever, and I ask what he will do for an adrenalin rush when he does finally hang up his whip?

"I don't think I will find it at all," he says. "And that doesn't scare me, but it does disappoint me. It's a disappointing thought that you have something fantastic for however many years of your life and suddenly it's gone." A chuckle.

"But we're all different. I remember hearing a story about John Francome walking up from the last fence at Fontwell one day, and someone said to him, 'You must really miss it John?' 'Miss it?' he said. 'I can't believe I was fucking mad enough to do it in the first place'."