McCoy captures his National spurs
The most brilliant jump jockey of all time lands his first victory in the greatest show on turf at the 15th attempt
Sunday 11 April 2010
By nearly every standard Tony McCoy – who has raised the bar of achievement in his chosen profession beyond reach – can be judged a true sporting great. Until yesterday, though, the one critical approval of his achievements that was missing was his own. The Ulsterman had been acutely aware of the one glaring omission on his CV; now it is a line that has been filled. At his 15th attempt, the 14-time champion jump jockey, the man whose career tally stands at more than 1,000 more than his nearest pursuer – and counting – came home first in the world's most famous race, the Grand National.
It takes two, of course, to tango; the name that will be alongside the jockey's in the record books is that of the bay gelding Don't Push It. Halfway up the long run-in, as the 10-year-old started to draw clear of Black Apalachi, McCoy, one of the least demonstrative of weighing-room professionals, began to let his emotions go. He stood in the stirrups as his mount strode towards the post, waving his whip, twisting to face the grandstands and the tumultuous reception pouring towards him from an enraptured audience that knew exactly what it was seeing.
As he pulled up Don't Push It, there were tears of relief, of happiness, of simply the enormity of the moment, on the face of the iceman. "I'm supposed to be a good jockey," he said, "but without the Grand National, no. For me, this means simply everything".
McCoy's satisfaction was magnified by the identity of the other two parts of the triumvirate that produced the victory: owner JP McManus, one of the jumping game's great supporters, and trainer Jonjo O'Neill.
Before yesterday 33 contenders had carried McManus's famous green, white and gold colours, with just two runner-up spots to show for their efforts. Though himself a dual champion in his riding days, O'Neill never even completed the course, and had saddled 15 unsuccessful runners before yesterday.
Such is the public's faith in McCoy that Don't Push It, his choice from the four in the race owned by McManus, who retains his services, was the subject of a huge groundswell of support in the minutes before the off, backed from 20-1 to 10-1 joint favourite.
As the runners circled at the start, the portents did not look good; the highly strung gelding was awash with nervy sweat despite his wearing rubber earplugs to block out the potentially unsettling atmosphere of what is always a highly charged crucible. It was the son of Old Vic's first experience of the unique fences and, although many called him the winner as he ranged alongside Black Apalachi going to the final fence, McCoy knew far sooner than that. "We hadn't gone a mile and I wouldn't have swapped him for anything," he said. "He had totally taken to the place. He's sometimes seemed a bit too intelligent for his own good but he just loved it out there and was using all his brains in the right way.
"I'm the biggest dreamer in the world, and every time I'd gone out to ride in the race I'd thought I'd win it. But this time, after a mile, I just knew I had it in the bag."
Outsider Conna Castle blazed a gung-ho trail for more than a circuit, followed by Black Apalachi, who had unseated Denis O'Regan at the second Becher's when bowling along in front the year before. Once that obstacle was safely behind him this time O'Regan kicked for home, and drew just three others with him: Don't Push It, Hello Bud and the other market leader, Big Fella Thanks.
Any of the quartet would have supplied the requisite fairytale; Hello Bud was from the Gold Cup-winning stable of Nigel Twiston-Davies and ridden by the trainer's teenaged son Sam, Barry Geraghty had replaced Ruby Walsh (who broke his arm in a fall in an earlier hurdle race) on Big Fella Thanks, and for Black Apalachi it would have been fine compensation after his ill-luck of having fallen in the last two renewals. But the John Smith's-sponsored contest provided the ending that just about everyone (except the bookmakers) wanted. "If you can't ride the winner yourself," said Geraghty, who finished fourth, "then AP is the one you wanted to win."
Don't Push It scored by five lengths, with 20 more back to State Of Play, who stayed on to take third, one place better than last year. "The ones around me were going well," said McCoy, "but every time I pulled mine out, gave him a bit of light and gave him a little bit of a squeeze, he went on for a stride or two, as if he had plenty still to give. It was a tremendous feeling."
The Grand National, four-and-a-half miles over 30 formidable fences, is as much a horseman's race as a jockey's; McCoy is certainly both. But it is the race's place in wider public knowledge that brings him the great satisfaction in finally shedding the monkey. "I've won a few other races," he said, with some understatement, "but not many people outside the sport have ever heard of them, or me.
"Everyone knows about the Grand National. And at least they'll now think I can ride a bit."
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