James Lawton: McCoy claims place alongside greatest even on day of defeats

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The Independent Online

To measure properly the extraordinary resilience and competitive instinct Tony McCoy brought from his ice chamber to two second places and one third here yesterday you had to go back many years and with much knowledge of this most hazardous trade.

It was fortunate, then, to encounter among the Ulsterman's most fervent admirers in the unsaddling enclosure a legend in his own right who was looking several decades younger than his 90 years.

Said Sir Peter O'Sullevan: "The temptation is to say that McCoy is unique, that racing has never seen anyone so strong in his body and his mind. Just look at how he rode today, he didn't have a lot of encouragement, but no one could have given any more. On each occasion he just wouldn't accept that he was beaten.

"But, you know, there is someone else who comes to mind. It is Lester [Piggott]. He came off when riding Mr Brooks in the Breeders Cup sprint in Gulfstream. The horse had to be put down and Lester had so many broken bones and looked such a mess you worried that he would ever walk again. But he said to me, 'I've had worse injuries falling out of bed.' He was riding again in no time at all. I always thought I would never see a competitive will like Lester. But then along comes Tony McCoy."

He came along yesterday with a passion to win which seemed to emanate from every pore and it should have happened in the opening race, the Supreme Novices Hurdle.

His patron J P McManus put two of the most favoured runners at his disposal but sometimes a lifetime of accumulated knowledge, and refined instinct, can let you down.

McCoy switched from the winner Captain Cee Bee to second placed Binocular and had two miles and half a furlong to regret it. Not that he did passively. Of course not. He fought every inch of the way and when McManus was later asked about the courage of his most favoured jockey he was no less eloquent for his economy of words. "It speaks for itself," said McManus, who added, "he is a man apart."

This was evident enough even on a day when the Irish hierarchy of McCoy and Ruby Walsh had to yield the centre of the stage to home-grown heroes like the double winner Robert "Choc" Thornton, who picked up a suspension for the combative zeal with which he brought home the Champion Hurdle winner Katchit, and Tom Scudamore, son of Peter, who scored his first win at the Festival. McCoy kept losing but there are various degrees of defeat and not one of the five he suffered yesterday created a flicker of doubt in the general agreement that here was unquestionably the greatest jump rider of all time.

Indeed, his second disappointment produced an even more dramatic example of defiance of the most unpromising odds. When Tidal Bay began to move as though he was a Japanese bullet train, and jumped quite beautifully, McCoy's Kruguyrova was so discouraged she was sucked back into the field and what promised to be permanent oblivion. Instead McCoy, in quite extraordinary fashion, reclaimed second place on the run-in.

McCoy's Champion Hurdle hope Straw Bear was always a long one and, though he galloped bravely was never in serious contention, finishing 15 lengths behind Katchit in fifth place. McCoy unsaddled him with a resignation that provided the day's first hint that there may, after all, have been some physical draining in the remarkable healing drive which brought him back from broken vertebrae in seven weeks – or two months earlier than predicted by the doctor who examined him after his sickening fall at Warwick.

When L'Ami, the racing cognoscenti's idea of McCoy's best chance of a first-day victory, had to be virtually dragged to the finish line in third place in the William Hill Trophy Chase, you saw clearly for the first time the limits which had been explored in one of the most remarkable comeback stories since Lazarus picked up his bed.

McCoy's face was drawn and had the colour of parchment when he returned to the jockeys' room.

Trainer François Doumen, who will now hope for a more spirited effort from the nine-year-old in the Grand National, sympathised with the frustrated jockey, saying, "The pace was too slow and the horse was lazy."

McCoy shook his head and said: "He was never helping me at any stage. I thought I might get there but it was no good. Still, it was a lot better than being in hospital. It really is good to be back."

Good to be back, that was, among a most remarkable breed – a group of sportsmen who know that today's misery can so easily be tomorrow's glory. If McCoy had any time for such philosophical reflection, it was probably provoked by his conqueror in the second race, Tidal Bay's young partner, Denis O'Regan. In January, O'Regan was suspended for three weeks when he mislaid the finishing post at Fakenham. Yesterday he rode quite majestically, as did Scudamore Jnr.

It was a remarkable comeback all of its own – but then, here again, we are talking about degrees.

McCoy may have failed to gain entrance to the winner's enclosure but already he had enshrined himself in medical history. It was also true that the voice of racing had declared a dead heat between him and Lester Piggott. There have not been many better day's work even in this valley of legends.

The Irish v The British

2.00 Anglo Irish Bank Supreme Novices Hurdle. Winner Captain Cee Bee (Irish).

2.35 Irish Independent Arkle Challenge Trophy Chase. Winner Tidal Bay (British).

3.15 Smurfit Kappa Champion Hurdle Challenge Trophy. Winner Katchit (British).

4.00 William Hill Trophy Handicap Chase. Winner An Accordion (British).

4.40 BGC Cross Country Handicap Chase. Winner Garde Champetre (Irish).

5.20 Fred Winter Juvenile Hurdle. Winner Crack Away Jack (British).

After day one: Britain 4 Ireland 2.