Cheltenham Festival 2015: Tony McCoy ready to revel in the Festival rush for one final time

AP McCoy rides first winner of the week to release the pressure on his final day at the Festival as he targets one last Gold Cup

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The Independent Online

He wore the exertion on his brow, in the red marks his helmet had left behind. It’s always been like that when AP McCoy has fought his way into this holy grail of winner’s enclosures, though this visit – his 192nd – was different. His smile was broader, his tread lighter, because the win had removed a weight that was beginning to look like it might bury him.

The expectation on him has been building ever since he declared out of nowhere, 34 days ago, that he would be gone inside three months and that this would be the last time at a Festival he rides into the teeth of the wind rolling down from Cleeve Hill, stares at the St Michael and All Angels church in the middle distance, and then fights the punishing hill to the finish, cursing soft ground which has done for so many. His final Gold Cup today, on his precious Carlingford Lough, is just the half of it. McCoy’s last ride this afternoon through the Gloucestershire valley, on Ned Buntline, will be two hours later in a race renamed, for one year only, the AP McCoy Grand Annual Chase.

All of which goes to explain why he looked like a man walking on air when Uxizandre, a horse in which he seemed to set no great store – “he seems to have good and bad days,” he’d said – brought him home. McCoy’s penultimate day at the Festival had consigned him to the margins before then and the sequence of the years in which he has left the meeting without a winner – 1995 and 2005 – seemed to be developing a deeply unpleasant significance. His wife had spoken of a melancholy in the house when they had set off from home, and it was easy to see why.

 

There was evidence at every turn of the forces which have made Cheltenham so much less than straightforward for McCoy down the years. None can say they own this course, with its formidable obstacles and topography, but the brilliant horsemanship of Ruby Walsh and the deep pockets of Ireland’s Willie Mullins team have left a 19-times champion jockey feeling mortal. The day was only one race old when Walsh – who has been the Festival’s leading rider eight times; McCoy twice – delivered Mullins a sixth winner.

Walsh’s face shone as he spoke of that winning novice Vantour’s Gold Cup potential in a future to which McCoy does not belong. Mullins’ words were loaded with unintentional significance when he spoke of the value of breaking a duck in Festival week. “To get the first winner I think gave everyone in our camp huge confidence,” he told me. “The one thing you want in sport is confidence. Then you can do anything. The ball just hops into your hand. After our first winner, the riders have just been riding like this.”

So he must empathise with the pressure McCoy had created for himself by declaring his intention to go? “I think AP is built for that,” Mullins said. “He loves that adrenalin rush. He will thrive on that. He will quite like that and probably ride four winners tomorrow…” Well, it didn’t look that way as McCoy’s flickering hopes on Regal Encore promptly faded to nothing and the trainer Nicky Henderson, struggling for anything after his seven winners of two years ago, had himself his first winner, too.

Why was McCoy putting himself through this, you wondered in that moment. Why not just go gently? Race without competing to be champion jockey, absolved of the need to be on every racecourse from Catterick to Chepstow. Locate some fun in weeks like this, just as Frankie Dettori did when he started slowing down. But McCoy isn’t made that way. He worries like hell that the landscape he sees ahead – entering Tour de France affiliate amateur races, watching Floyd Mayweather fights, maybe checking out horses for JP McManus – will be impoverished, and weeks like this are a part of the coming to terms. “I wanted to prepare myself mentally for retiring,” he says.

He located the thrill that he will soon lose, as the doubts about Uxizandre’s stamina were banished in the Ryanair Chase. “He ran away with me,” McCoy said, reflecting on a horse which did not need to be compelled to fight in the manner of Wichita Lineman, Sychronised, Binocular and so many which have gone before. The seven-year-old was able to look at the television cameras on the inside of the course and still take him home by five lengths. “I thought that he has a little bit for himself if he is able to notice what is going on around him,” McCoy related. He reined the horse back as they freewheeled down the hill, on the way home.

Today he starts again for one last time, though for a real sense of how it will be for him, you need to walk away from the stands which greeted him today, and head out towards the lee of Cleeve Hill to a place where it will be still enough for McCoy to hear the horse under him and the sounds of exertion. It is in the solitude that he will feel the searing need for a fitting end between himself and this place. Intensity makes champions and it defines them to the end.

Gold Cup predictions

Ian Herbert; Chief Sports Writer

1st Many Clouds

2nd Road To Riches

3rd Silviniaco Conti

Jon Freeman; Racing Correspondent

1st Many Clouds

2nd Smad Place

3rd Silviniaco Conti

John Cobb; Associate Editor, Racing Post

1st Djakadam

2nd Many Clouds

3rd Coneygree

What's in a name: Some of the leading contenders

Carlingford Lough (3.20)

Tony McCoy’s final Cheltenham Gold Cup ride is named after the sea inlet which forms part of the border between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic.

Holywell (3.20)

A town in Flintshire, which in turn takes its name from St Winefride’s Well, a site of pilgrimage since the seventh century.

Universal Soldier (4.00)

A 1965 hit for folk singer Donovan, written by Buffy Sainte-Marie. More recently an action film series starring Jean-Claude van Damme.

Ned Buntline (5.15)

McCoy’s final Festival ride was the pseudonym of E Z C Judson, a 19th-century American journalist, who mixed with and wrote about many famous western frontier characters.

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