A noble bandwagon or a cynical plot to nobble the vote?

Racing has pulled out all the stops in a bid to crown McCoy – but it may have gone too far

So, when does promotion become a campaign become manipulation? The name and face of Tony McCoy are part of the furniture on the inside of the fence that divides racing from the wider sporting world; we already know about the talent, dedication and drive that have produced the achievements that set him apart from others in his profession.

Until lately, the iconic one's persona has stayed within bounds. And the fact that his name was on few outsiders' lips has entirely suited the self-effacing, self-critical sporting colossus. But hardly had he achieved his life's ambition by winning the Grand National back in April than the bookmakers pricked their collective ears in the direction of Sports Personality of the Year and the bandwagon started rolling.

The reins are now firmly in the hands of Racing For Change, the organisation set up last year with the brief of widening the sport's appeal. An embarrassed McCoy, to whom blowing his own trumpet in any way but deeds is an anathema, has been touted to media outlets all over the land and to his eternal credit, decent bloke that he is, he has toed the party line that such exposure will be "good for racing".

He has gone along with the Lord Kitchener-style poses for posters, has cheerfully ridden in races with subtle names like yesterday's Vote AP McCoy For BBC Sports Personality Novices' Chase at Exeter, where life-size cardboard cutouts of yer man flanked the weighing room door.

Since its inception in 1954, no jockey has ever been SPOTY, not Lester Piggott, not Frankie Dettori, both far higher in the lay sporting public's consciousness. The nearest racing has ever come to recognition was through equine efforts. Red Rum stole the show with his guest appearance and Desert Orchid once polled more votes than the winner Nigel Mansell, only to be disqualified on the grounds he was a horse.

Even McCoy accepts racing is a minority sport nowadays. And those at Racing For Change have defended their efforts to level the playing field. "Within the sport we have not been great at promoting ourselves in the eyes of the outside world," said the RFC spokesman Nick Attenborough yesterday, "and this is a great opportunity to raise the profile of an extraordinary talent.

"What we've tried to do is present information and make people more aware of the magnitude of his standing. For instance, to say someone has ridden more than 3,000 winners may be meaningless to a non-racing person until you put it in perspective by pointing out that it is 1,000 more than anyone else. But in the end, all we can do is put the facts about Tony McCoy and what a phenomenon he is on the table. We can't force anyone to vote for him.

"Surveys we did showed that six per cent of the general public could name Tony McCoy back in March, and though that had doubled to 12 per cent last week, it still means that 88 per cent don't recognise him."

After the angling fraternity's infamous efforts 19 years ago to secure the SPOTY title for its world champion, Bob Nudd, the BBC started to tighten up its rules. Eyebrows were certainly raised after Ryan Giggs beat the hot favourite Jenson Button after a concerted campaign by Manchester United fans last year.

"I'm not sure we'd call our efforts a campaign," said Attenborough. "We've been very careful to stay within the BBC's rules for the competition ahead of the vote. We haven't been inducing or manipulating. It's not as if we've been handing out free phone cards or anything like that and we don't regard something like cut-out figures at racecourses as blatant promotion, more a bit of fun for people who are already converted."

That McCoy is deserving of the award for lifetime achievement is beyond debate and his success in the Grand National may be the catalyst that ensures he gets it. He has been favourite steering Don't Push It round Aintree and is now an odds-on shot. But hotshots do get overturned (witness Button, Adlington, Hamilton and Clarke in the past four years), which is one reason bookmakers are in business. McCoy himself, perhaps touching a metaphoric talisman, reckons better value lies elsewhere.

Win or lose, though, Attenborough reckons RFC's campaign – sorry, information dissemination – has been worth it: "For once the whole of racing has been behind a single cause, and that has already got people talking. And if they are drawn into racing by seeing the sort of champion we can produce, that alone is a benefit. But I'll be gutted if he comes second."

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