McCoy's losing run goes on but Butler gives all

As he always does, Ted Walsh put it vividly. "AP McCoy has just been unlucky," he said last week. "Some of the greatest jockeys in history never won the National. Yet when you look down the list of those who have, you see men you wouldn't think safe in any kind of race. Some of the quarest hawks the Lord ever made won the National."

The man who trained the 2000 winner, Papillon, was talking about the disparity in the Aintree records of his own son, Ruby, and the most prolific jump jockey of all time. And he was dismissing a theory that their relative fortunes do not so much reflect the capricious favours of Aintree, as a genuine difference in eligibility. What happened yesterday went a long way to confirming Walsh's judgement.

Ruby was only 20 when he rode Papillon, and has in the meantime not only won on Hedgehunter, but also finished second and, twice, fourth. This time, in creeping his way through the field on My Will, eventually finishing third, he confirmed himself the modern master of Aintree. In nine starts, he has yet to come back on foot.

The contrast in McCoy's National history has meanwhile become the subject of merciless public fascination. Twice in the previous three years he had been going great guns when departing at Becher's second time, brought down on Clan Royal and then falling on Butler's Cabin last year.

To some eyes, however, these were not the outrageous slings and arrows they appeared. The fact that he was up in the lead, tanking along, implied that he might have been author of his own misfortunes. It is a long way home from Becher's, after all. Would Ruby have been up there, flourishing the cutlass already?

This legacy of mistrust traces back to the gung-ho riding that won the younger McCoy so many races in his days with Martin Pipe. It was said that he would ride the same way, on the high days and holidays of Cheltenham or Aintree, as on a Monday at Plumpton, striking for home early and relying on the superior fitness of his mounts and his own, inexorable strengths in a finish.

Whatever truth there may once have been in these suspicions, McCoy has become far more versatile since working for JP McManus. In the four races preceding the National, the green and gold McManus silks were always to be found in the same place, hugging the rail away from the pace. And on Don't Push It, a horse that might have been christened with haste and speed in mind, McCoy had shown himself in his absolute pomp. This horse has long hesitated to make the most of his gifts, but McCoy settled him off the pace and then, when the time came to commit, allowed no doubt that his indulgence should now be reciprocated.

And then for the moment of truth. Two false starts, tangled tapes and scolding flags, a metaphor for delayed fulfilment. But once they got under way, McCoy and Walsh were in perfect tandem on the two big favourites – McCoy picking the wider course, admittedly, but hunting his way round quietly on Butler's Cabin, a calm, seamless presence among the sunlit chaos of flying birch and catapulted riders. After Becher's second time, however, the horse began to fray at the edges. His jumping lost all buoyancy, and though he bravely persevered for seventh, he was spent.

He had one final reproof for his rider. For you can do no more than your best, and Butler's Cabin had not spared himself. Just as when he had won at Cheltenham two years ago, and also when he won the Irish National, his legs gave way and he had to be revived with oxygen. The gravity of his situation was emphasised by the grim rituals of disposal and despair taking place on the course itself, where Hear The Echo had suffered a fatal heart attack.

In a race that became a monument to the abiding uncertainties of McCoy's calling, the only guarantee is that Butler's Cabin would have fared no better under Walsh. And nor, indeed, under Liam Treadwell – a young man with too little on his record, one way or the other, to be prejudged as one of the "quare hawks". Perhaps McCoy will eventually find some consolation from so unaccountable a success. He will be 35 next year, and the chances are that it is not going to happen now. But if names are engraved so haphazardly on the roll of honour, he will perhaps learn the same depth of perspective, on the gloomy drive home to Lambourn, as he nowadays shows in the saddle itself.

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