Racing: The bridling of a champion

McCoy's brilliance in danger of dimming as a raft of regulations ruin the pure pleasure of racing
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They honoured their own sporting heroes in Ireland last week in the way only the Irish can, with a robust sincerity and a healthy understanding of sport's place in the firmament. The nostalgia flowed, of course, and tales grew taller as the night wore on, but the litany of past award winners showed the richness of the heritage being celebrated at the 41st Texaco sports awards in Dublin. How many nations of comparable size could boast the formidable array of international talent on display in 1982: Barry McGuigan, Sean Kelly, Pat Eddery, John Watson, Ollie Campbell and Alex Higgins? Or 1987? Stephen Roche, Eddery again, Liam Brady and Danny Blanchflower (inducted into the Hall of Fame).

Tony McCoy is not usually much of a one for awards, but a trip back to his homeland is never a great hardship and this he knew - because he had won it once before - was a trophy to be prized. For a boy from the north to be honoured in the south was of particular significance. And in horse racing, the sport of the Irish. "One of the best ever," the compere said, summoning McCoy to the podium. With 692 winners in just four seasons in England, including a record 253 last season, the claim cannot be widely disputed. The consistency of the 24-year-old's brilliance has scorched the record books.

But there were other reasons why his heart lifted as his flight touched down in Dublin late on Tuesday afternoon. For one thing, his girlfriend Chanelle Burke was there to meet him, blonde, bright and pretty as a picture, an instant cure for any blues. After a temporary separation while she travelled the world and he was engaged in relentless pursuit of racing immortality, they had recently got back together. For another, at a time when he is not feeling particularly well-loved on this side of the Irish Sea, he could retreat into a community which has an instinctive appreciation of his trade. In Ireland the horse is a working animal not a domestic pet.

In the face of another suspension, McCoy needed the change of air.

On the flight over, far from being reticent and suspicious, as he had every right to be, McCoy was open and friendly, anxious to talk. Roughly 700 winners, including a Champion Hurdle and Gold Cup double, have been chalked up since the day we last met, ironically in the weighing-room at Fontwell where late last year the champion suffered his severest brush with officialdom. Then he was unnervingly quiet, though his star was quite clearly on the rise. Now, under the influence of Chanelle, his manager/driver Liam Egan and his agent, Cameron McMillan, he is blossoming into a forceful figurehead for a sport desperately seeking to broaden its commercial appeal. It is as unfortunate for the sport as for McCoy himself that racing seems to be at war with one of its most popular champions.

On a weekend dominated by more arrests, McCoy picked up a six-day ban for incorrect use of the whip on Eudipe in winning the feature race at Sandown.

The champion had only recently served a two-week suspension for a similar offence at Fontwell. By the time he is back in the saddle, he will have spent 37 days on compulsory holiday in the last nine months. McCoy was going to take an ad in the Racing Post requesting the loan of a Spanish villa for a holidaying champion jockey until he was advised against it, a sense of humour not being one of the most noticeable attributes of the Jockey Club.

But the thought is still whirring. "Maybe I'll buy a place in Spain, spend half a year there, half here," he muses. "That's the way it's going at the moment."

An understandable confusion is grafted on to this growing disillusion. That morning, in the Racing Post, McCoy had been nominated for the Ride of the Year award by Oliver Sherwood, not usually one of his employers. The race was at Aintree on 4 April when McCoy drove the enigmatic Pridwell to victory over Istabraq, the champion hurdler. "It was a superb, very, very strong ride - one of the best ever," he wrote. Too strong, said the stewards. McCoy was banned for four days, then six when he appealed. His ride on the Martin Pipe-trained chaser at Sandown was, according to those who saw it, another masterpiece. Eudipe had never won beyond two and a half miles, but had been placed in high-class long- distance company in the Hennessy and the Welsh National. Carrying 12st over three miles five furlongs on testing ground, McCoy had to keep Eudipe interested without expending too much of his energy. It was a delicate calculation. "I'd been pushing him along for a mile and down the back I was thinking about how many times I'd used the whip, but I reckoned if I could keep him to within about a length and a half at the last, we would be all right."

Glitter Isle, the long-time leader, jumped the last flat- footed and McCoy was close enough to pounce, driving Eudipe up the lung- bursting Sandown hill. He was pleased with the ride until the stipendiary steward appeared in the weighing-room. A two-day ban for incorrect use of the whip triggered a further suspended four-day sentence. McCoy used to take his whip with him into the stewards to try to explain. Nowadays, he doesn't bother.

"To be honest, I've given up. You come back from days like Sandown and wonder why you bother. The owner is over the moon, the trainer is over the moon, I'm over the moon because I've given the horse a ride I'm absolutely happy with. Then I get banned." McCoy watched the rerun 12 times that night and is ready to accept that one of his strokes unintentionally caught Eudipe short of the quarters. But he also watched a jockey at another meeting hit a horse on the saddle cloth without official action and wondered about the consistency of justice. The recent decision by the Jockey Club to impose an automatic 10-day suspension for jockeys found guilty of breaching the rules in Grade One races has hardly soothed his suspicions. High-profile races generally mean McCoy in full cry.

Last time, McCoy absorbed the indignity of being ordered back to school to change his whipping style. He even allowed the BBC to film a painful piece which featured him astride a mechanical horse, wielding his whip like a featherduster. Technically, with the rules framed as they are, the stroke is very difficult. The arm must not come above shoulder height, yet to reach the quarters requires a considerable and, in McCoy's opinion, unnatural stretch. But it is not the technicalities which disturb him. When he was a shy boy from the non-racing part of County Antrim, no one was around to tell him how to ride. So why are they telling him now?

"When you leave home at 15 to go racing, you have to make a go of it. There's no other option. That means putting constant pressure on yourself day after day. You sit in the sauna, you drive the car in a full sweatsuit with the heating full on and you're only as good as your last winner. I can ride a winner on a Saturday and if I haven't ridden a winner on the Monday I'll sulk until I ride another. You have a bad day and the first thing you do is watch all the races to see where you went wrong and the second is to check what rides you've got for tomorrow.

"There was a time when Woody [Richard Dunwoody] wasn't happy if he hadn't ridden more winners than anyone else. Now he's happy riding every horse to the best of his ability. Mentally, he's much happier and he's riding as well as ever. I seem to be getting further away from that. The drive is still there. I find it hard not to try to win. That's what's getting me into trouble." Two recent short-head defeats at Catterick left him particularly disconsolate, and not just because the whole Manchester United squad were watching their investment. Defeat he can take, short- head defeats he takes personally. "I came home feeling as though I hadn't done my job properly," he said.

There are not many days on which either McCoy or his loyal followers can say that with any degree of accuracy. They will have to do without "A.P." again next week. That might be good news for the rest of the weighing- room and the bookies; the bad news is that McCoy is planning to ride all summer.

He reckons he'll have had enough holidays by then.