Racing: Taking the reins at a centre for excellers

Just why is Tony McCoy going back to school this week? Sue Montgomery found out
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The Independent Online
ONE OF the oddest reactions to the news that Tony McCoy has been ordered to undergo remedial tuition in the wake of repeated suspensions for rule-breaking misuse of the whip has been the suggestion that the champion jump jockey is above any sort help with his skills. Presumably those who feel that there is something demeaning about a professional sportsman taking - or having to take - advice would wonder why Tim Henman, or Colin Montgomerie or the entire Manchester United squad bother with coaching.

Although McCoy's powerful, vigorous riding style is effective in bringing success to his employers, it is clearly inefficient from his point of view. Since April the Ulsterman has lost 27 days' work and his tally last year during the equivalent period of the two-week ban he is at present serving came to 12 winners and more than pounds 10,000 in earnings. And the rules on the use of the whip are not going to become any laxer.

Self-appraisal is a necessary quality in any sportsman and there is no suggestion here that McCoy does not possess it. Tomorrow he will arrive in Newmarket for a four-day stint at the British Racing School, where his aids will be a mechanical horse and a video camera; his mentors the former jump jockey Paul Barton, now a Jockey Club stewards' secretary, and Robert Sidebottom, the school's senior instructor. And before the what-can-they-possibly-teach-McCoy brigade get on their high horses it should be pointed out that Nick Skelton could ride the breeches off Lars Sederholm but still turns to him for help and listens to every word.

The British Racing School is this sport's centre of excellence and one of its best-kept secrets. Its base line is that it supplies some of the industry's demand for stable staff, running year-round, overlapping, 10- week courses, and it is no mean testament to the standard of instruction given by Sidebottom and his assistants that four of the last six champion apprentice jockeys and two of this year's leading young lights, Neil Pollard and Adrian McCarthy, are among the school's alumni. The most famous old boy, Royston Ffrench, could not even ride when he arrived.

It is also a place for advice, practice and rehabilitation at all levels. It is now compulsory that once an apprentice rides 20 winners and loses his 7lb claim, he or she must attend a refresher course at the school. Last week 10 of them were going through their paces and - after seeing what they looked like on video - having their eyes opened.

From day one the message throughout is one of professionalism, dedication, effort and attitude. No attention to detail is overlooked, from the insistence of the director Rory MacDonald that he is greeted with eye contact and a polite "good morning, sir" when he walks into the stable yard.

"Communication skills are all part of the job now," he said, "and down the line an owner or trainer will be more inclined to employ someone who can smile and say hello, rather than just grunt. We try to make the point that if you're in a queue of 100 people you have to decide how you're going to put the other 99 behind you. That is one of the things that singled out Royston as well as his natural talent."

Most of the young wannabe Frankies will not make it as jockeys, but then this is not a jockey school per se. The 10-week course includes a thorough grounding in the art and slog of the stable lad's life from dawn to well beyond dusk. The trainees will ride twice, for the first three weeks in an indoor school, thereafter on the school's own training tracks with the instructor "upsides" in a van communicating one-to-one over a radio mike.

They will "do their two" to a high standard morning and evening (golden oldies like Another Coral and Shiny Copper are here having fun still earning their corn), attend lectures, watch videos of their own and others' mistakes and, during the final week, undergo a basic computer course. They are guaranteed a job at the end.

"Our regime is not for the faint-hearted and not all who come here will succeed or stay in the industry" MacDonald said. "But we are prepared to take the chance and make the investment in them."

The school, which has won several awards for the excellence against all- comers, is a charity funded by government and donations. Its service is to the racing industry and the professional development of its athletes, young and old, but there is also a bit of private enterprise involved. For pounds 30 an hour you can learn to ride a racehorse and there are success stories in that department too. "We had a chap who wanted, at the age of 49, to ride his own horse in a point-to-point," MacDonald said. "And we taught him, and he finished third."