Chris McGrath: McCoy's personality is big enough to rise above factions and criticism

Inside Track
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The Independent Online

You can imagine the relief at Racing For Change. Here, surely, the sport's hired evangelists have something to unite even their most inveterate critics. For who could possibly view the decoration of A P McCoy, as BBC Sports Personality of the Year, as anything other than a Jolly Good Thing?

After all, the man is one of the authentic giants of Turf history, a phenomenon of talent, accomplishment, stamina and courage. And the more people who recognise that, the better. At the same time, however, there is something rather unnerving – and depressingly instructive – about the ridiculous overexcitement infecting the campaign.

Yesterday Cheltenham racecourse became the latest to jump aboard, announcing that a valuable handicap chase next Saturday will be run as the "Vote AP" Gold Cup. They can only make this gesture, of course, because the race has lost its sponsorship. Itself another reproof, Racing For Change would doubtless argue, to those barring the way of progress.

But the sport must take care that the McCoy bandwagon does not come to seem undignified, even a little bit desperate. Certainly, the man himself, whose ferocious desire to dominate on the racetrack is matched by a paradoxical humility, will be finding the whole melodrama increasingly uncomfortable. Everyone has to be clear about one thing. If McCoy does not win, it will be the award itself that is diminished, and not the other way round.

Yet racing seems increasingly obsessed by how it is perceived by the layman. And the format of the BBC award is tailored irresistibly to this, our new weakest link. The AP campaign is not motivated by a corporate desire, on behalf of the community that adores him, to put a smile on his face. It's an attempt to expose a racing "brand" to the ghastly apparatus by which mass television audiences obtain a fatuous sense of empowerment from embracing celebrity.

But it seems highly questionable whether this fairly pointless trinket would make any tangible difference to long-term interest in his sport, any more than Zara Phillips opened a new frontier for eventing in 2006. McCoy himself has long ago guaranteed the esteem of those whose judgement he respects. Here his life work would instead be endorsed by millions who watch one race a year.

Perhaps success for McCoy would achieve something substantial for racing were he to use the platform, with all due civility, to protest at the pillage of the BBC's coverage in recent years. The BBC, of course, retains anomalous influence over the public's sporting priorities. With the London Olympics looming, it will doubtless be deceiving them into watching sports with pathetic levels of participation and interest. Meanwhile racing, its aggregate attendance exceeded only by football, has seen its schedules savaged.

Perversely, McCoy would owe success precisely to the fact that he won the one and only horse race ring-fenced for terrestrial coverage. In contrast, only satellite viewers saw another Ulsterman, Graeme McDowell, become the first British major winner in 11 years.

In future, viewing habits and opportunities will become increasingly fragmented and specialised. For now the BBC remains privileged to retain Aintree, Royal Ascot and Epsom, largely as conduit to a default terrestrial audience. But the fact is that you can already watch those meetings on dedicated racing channels, as well.

Such expert coverage will never reach a mass audience, but it can certainly build a sustainable one. As such the first obligation of racing professionals is arguably to that audience. For the moment, however, McCoy is refusing to talk to Racing UK, on account of criticism made by two of its pundits of his ride on Get Me Out Of Here at Ascot last month. They felt it conspicuously lacking in his usual dynamism, and McCoy has objected furiously to what he perceives as a slur on his integrity.

It is true that McCoy and at least one of his critics have a history of mutual antipathy. But just as it might be argued that the latter rather went looking for trouble – Ascot is not a Racing UK course, meaning there was no footage to allow viewers to make up their own minds – so McCoy should recognise that his reaction is unworthy. If he wants to make a stand, he could always decline specific interviewers, with whom he perceives a grievance. By boycotting the channel, however, in effect he is asking their employers which the audience can best afford to lose: the unfettered expertise of perhaps their most passionate, popular and provocative analysts, or the co-operation of the most successful jump jockey in history? And that's not a pleasant thing to see.

McCoy has a right to complain if he feels freedom of speech is not being exercised responsibly. He has since offered a cogent account of his ride at Ascot. All this could have been avoided, perhaps, had the stewards sought one from him on the day. But McCoy is too big to need sycophants and flatterers. He should be too big to bear grudges, too.

With his impending apotheosis as a celebrity in mind, it seems fitting the cause of this little fuss is named Get Me Out Of Here. Unlike many previous winners of the BBC award, McCoy has a terrific personality – he's honest, engaging and thoughtful, wholly innocent of airs, altogether a likeable man. He doesn't need to be defensive. He doesn't have to be justifying himself. He can leave that to the sport campaigning on his behalf.

Freeze or no freeze, the top jumpers are on ice for the Festival

So the mice keep the treadmill turning, from 12.20 at Southwell until 8.50 at Wolverhampton. And Channel 4 is taking in half a dozen races, too. But the jumps programme remains suspended, and forecasts of a thaw in places remain too ambivalent to suggest any radical improvement next week. They do seem to have half a chance at Exeter tomorrow, with an official going report divided between soft and frozen, but Warwick inspect at lunchtime today "more in hope than confidence".

All this makes no difference to Denman, of course. After that magnificent effort in defeat at Newbury last week, Paul Nicholls resolved to put him away until the Totesport Cheltenham Gold Cup in March. As he gets older, people are going to be rightly indulgent to a horse who has always given so generously, and over the years he has proved himself very effective fresh. Even so, this represents a new extreme in the sparing strategy that once caused people to criticise Henrietta Knight for the way she nursed Best Mate to three Gold Cups.

The dazzling Hennessy winner, Diamond Harry, will himself only have one more start before the Festival; and the trainers of Kauto Star and Imperial Commander are already committed to putting them away after Kempton on Boxing Day.

You can see the logic, absolutely. But when you consider the vandalism being perpetrated by vain, ignorant people on the Flat calendar, it makes you wonder how they ever got it into their heads that the jumps season had a superior "narrative". All roads lead to Cheltenham, fine. For many of the best horses, however, that means there will be an awful lot of weeks exactly like the one we have just had.

Turf Account: Chris McGrath


Taurakina (5.20 Wolverhampton) Italian import who laughed off her initial rating with a four-length romp at Kempton, but managed only fourth under a penalty over this course and distance the following week. Consumed too much fuel retrieving a slow start that day, but fresher here and can prove ahead of her revised rating.

Next Best

Empress Charlotte (4.40 Kempton) Found her feet in three spins in maidens, earning a very modest rating with a good pedigree in mind, and easily pardoned defeat in both handicap starts – given a break after ripping off a shoe on the first occasion, and then caught wide and running green when second at Wolverhampton last month.

One to watch

Fayre Bella (J Gallagher) won a maiden at 100-1 at Ffos Las in the spring but had beaten just six out of 57 other rivals in five starts preceding a return to form off a much reduced mark at Lingfield during the week, meeting heavy traffic before keeping on for fourth in the straight.

Where the money's going

Further support yesterday for Synchronised in the Coral Welsh National saw the sponsors cut him to 8-1 favourite from 10-1. William Hill laid Maktu from 14-1 to 12-1 for the same race.