He could have chosen no better milieu. Certainly it was far more fitting for Tony McCoy to ride his 3,000th winner here, on a filthy Monday afternoon, than in spring sunshine at the Cheltenham Festival, or even with that first Grand National success – one of the few remaining goals still goading one of the toughest achievers in all sport. Instead McCoy offered the waiting world a sample of his calling that perfectly measured not just its daily imponderables, but also the sort of man who could master them so implacably.
All afternoon the clouds rolled sorrowfully off the downs, and the wind flung icy rain into the riders' faces. The ground was so heavy that it might as well have been strewn with barbed wire, and pitted with foxholes. The horses, on the whole, were Monday horses, Plumpton horses. As befits a man approaching his 14th consecutive championship, admittedly, McCoy's four mounts were not as mediocre as most. But even that could not necessarily preserve him from the travails that menace every jump jockey, every day.
The first one could barely drag his feet out of the ground. The second, a hurdler named Hello Moscow, looked beaten with a circuit to go. His backers were perfectly entitled to discard their betting tickets, but over the years McCoy has taught them not fidelity, but blind faith. He seized hold of the reins and suffused the mute animal with his own drive, his own will; all out on the run-in, they held out grimly, still a neck clear at the line.
That took him to 2,999, and the pity was that he could hardly contrive a more characteristic performance to reach the landmark. As it was, however, the next race would provide a still more eloquent insight into the hazards that treat all jockeys with equal indifference. For Miss Sarenne looked certain to take him to the milestone more or less as a passenger, so smoothly was she going into the final hurdle. But she slithered to the ground on landing, and while both the mare and her rider were soon on their feet, the moral of the episode was lost on none who witnessed it. It must be unprecedented for a bedraggled crowd of punters to cheer a jockey who has just hit the deck on a hot favourite with the race in the bag.
Nicky Henderson, the mare's trainer, accompanied their muddy hero back to the jockeys' room, shaking his head. "Poor guy," he said. "He doesn't get down to 10st 4lb very often, and has been wasting hard – on a day as cold as this, too. It's just the epitome of the man. And then something like that has to happen."
A few minutes later McCoy emerged, no more or less cadaverous than usual, and handed Henderson his saddle for their last chance in the plunging dusk: Restless d'Artaix, a novice chaser with just four rivals to beat. And this time the capricious gods who govern his sport took pity on McCoy, whose progress towards the landmark had in recent days become as glacial as the weather that repeatedly interfered with his plans.
Instead they allowed him to reiterate another part of his repertoire – one often overshadowed by the ardent flourishes so cherished by punters in a close finish, but no less fundamental. For it was an unerring "eye for a stride" that first set him apart, as an adolescent prodigy from Ulster, and Restless d'Artaix jumped impeccably throughout. After a brief tussle on the run-in, they got home by a length, and it was time for the handshakes, hugs and autographs. Only a couple of hundred souls braved the vile conditions round the winner's enclosure, but their welcome was warm as any sunshine.
And rightly so, for in their midst was an authentic colossus, who will bestride the Turf's annals for generations to come. His vocation permits even a man like McCoy no airs, however, and as he stood in the rain he decorously spread the credit elsewhere: to his agent, Dave Roberts, to his parents, his patrons.
But he was not fooling anyone. The beauty is that McCoy, unlike many others who break new ground in sport, himself values sheer weight of numbers as a valid gauge of his endeavours. "I do feel very privileged," he admitted eventually. "I hope my mum and dad will be very proud, and that Eve [his 18-month-old daughter] will grow up and some day knowing that I must have been an OK jockey. Without wanting to sound arrogant, it's a lot of hard work, a lot of falls. I didn't wake up this morning at 10st 4lb, that's for sure."
At 34, he intends to stay around only for so long as he retains his monopoly on the title. That is the conundrum of McCoy, that he should dovetail his essential humility with such a demonic obsession for being best. Nobody else has even ridden 2,000 winners.
When asked what drove him on, he promptly replied: "The fear of someone else riding more winners than me." He was in deadly earnest, but the general laughter prompted him to offer something else. "It's very easy to be driven when you love what you're doing. I'm very lucky in that I absolutely love what I do. I'm sure someone will come along in years to come and ride more winners than me. There's nothing that's impossible. People ask can I ride 4,000? Who knows? Never say never. All I will do is look for the 3,001st winner, and carry on and ride as many as possible. If I keep going to 44, I could ride 5,000 winners. That's a joke, by the way."
This time, however, nobody was laughing.
Tony McCoy: His historic day
Ride 1. Excape (5-2 third favourite in two-mile novice hurdle) Faded badly to finish a poor seventh. McCoy's winning total still 2,998.
Ride 2. Hello Moscow (4-1 second favourite in 2m5f handicap hurdle) Mount clearly hated the mud but was given the full McCoy treatment and was hard driven to hold on by a neck. The champion had reached 2,999.
Ride 3. Miss Sarenne (a hot 10-11 favourite in a mares' hurdle) Six lengths clear at the last, cheers rising from the stands... then suddenly a crashing fall. McCoy and mount hit the ground. Exasperation.
Ride 4.Restless d'Artaix (13-8 favourite in a beginners' chase) Covered in mud but the partnershiptriumph by a length. Finally it's 3,000.