It was on a golf course in July that Tony McCoy came face to face with fame. He was playing alongside Tiger Woods in a pro-am and, although the two men have equivalent standing as arguably the greatest-ever exponents in their own sports, and the place was littered with household names, for the fans only one celebrity existed.
"On the practice ground," recalled McCoy, "there were the world's best golfers. There were Premier League footballers, there was Michael Douglas, Hugh Grant and the boys from Westlife. But as soon as Tiger finished and left, the crowds went too. He has this amazing presence; it was like God had walked away. And when we were stood on the first tee, there were hundreds of eyes watching, they were all watching just him, staring at just him, and that's what he lives with all the time. When I go shopping, no one takes a blind bit of notice."
Don't get him wrong, McCoy is not complaining, just observing. He is the hot favourite to become the BBC's Sports Personality of the Year a week today, and is mildly embarrassed to be so. But despite the bookies' odds, he is under no illusion that he is a dead cert to become the first jockey to take an award that depends on a public vote. "It's not that I belittle myself or my achievements," he said, "but – though it kills me to say it – I'm very aware that racing is these days a minority sport."
Those achievements, if recorded in any mainstream arena, would have made the 36-year-old a national icon, by any yardstick a sporting great. Champion jump jockey for the past 15 years, breaker of every numerical record in the book, winner of every major prize in the form book including, famously, the Grand National at the 15th time of asking this year.
He appreciates the irony that it was victory in the Aintree marathon, a contest that depends as much on luck as skill, which has finally thrust him into the SPOTY spotlight. "But I should not complain," he said, "as it was always the race I wanted to win more than any, right from when I first dreamed of being a jockey.
"It was the one race that everyone had heard of, the people's race, and that's why it was important. Winning it did not make me a better jockey, but it might have made a few people outside the sport think I can ride a bit."
Just a bit. The man from Moneyglass, Co Antrim, has raised the bar beyond reach, almost beyond imagination. Eight years ago he consigned one of the most enduring records in British sport, Sir Gordon Richards's tally of 269 winners set in 1947, to history, and went on to post 289, at an extraordinary strike rate of 29 per cent. Last year he reached the milestone of 3,000 career winners, more than 1,000 more than the perennial runner-up Richard Johnson. There is quality in there, too – a Gold Cup, a Champion Chase, a King George VI Chase, three Champion Hurdles.
It is appropriate that, of all his feats, McCoy is proudest of beating Richards's record, because his dedication and resolution, single-mindedness and tunnel vision, call the qualities what you will, are the stuff of legend. In times of stress, his lantern-jawed countenance turns introverted, haggard and hunted; there are expressions of frustration and fury and self-recrimination.
Because his professional bodyweight needs to be something like a stone and a half below the natural weight for his not especially slight 5ft 10in frame, his physical condition is a constant preoccupation, in the form of a combination of exercise, sweating and moderate, sometimes frugal, eating. But he does not regard his harsh regime as anything out of the ordinary. The famed Northern Ireland Protestant work ethic happily travels across the sectarian divide.
"It's the way I was brought up," he said. "My Dad is a builder and has always been a hard worker and even now at the age of 70 he's not happy unless he's working at something. Riding is my job and I try to do it very well.
"When you start, you want to win, which is the greatest buzz. Then you want to win a bit more. You dream about being champion jockey, and then champion jockey again. As it goes on, it becomes about goals and targets, and that's a different sort of buzz.
"The fear of failure is always there, I suppose. The more you win, the more you fear not winning. And that's when I'll retire, when I know I can't be the best any more. But I don't consider I have a hard life; quite the contrary. Maybe I am obsessed, but when you're doing something you absolutely love, it's easy to be obsessed."
McCoy's is one of the few professions in which the participants are routinely followed around by an ambulance as they get on with their day job and, again, the prospect of inevitable serious injury is shrugged off as almost inconsequential. "I'm a jump jockey," he said. "I'm going to end up in the back of that ambulance from time to time."
It was a subject, though, that rivetedhis celebrated golfing partner. Also in the group was the recently retired rider Mick Fitzgerald, and McCoy, a relative latecomer to the fairways who plays off a tidy 14, had brought along his best buddy in the weighing room, Ruby Walsh, as his caddie.
"Tiger had that knee surgery and we got to talking about sporting injuries," he said. "But he didn't know anything about racing and when we started to explain about the sort of things that happened to us, like Mick breaking his neck twice, and Ruby having his spleen out, and my broken back and shoulder blades and cheek and leg and ribs and the rest, he was just totally amazed. He just kept asking and asking questions."
The golfing occasion was the tournament at Adare Manor in Co Limerick run every five years by McCoy's boss, the Irish multimillionaire businessman JP McManus. After a highlysuccessful relationship with the multiple champion trainer Martin Pipe, McCoy joined forces with McManus six years ago in order to test himself. It was a career move that brought him his two most treasured sporting memories, that round with Woods and the Grand National victory.
"Martin pushed the training boundaries so far that whoever rode for him was more or less guaranteed the title," said McCoy. "Eventually, I wanted to prove to myself that I could do it without his help. It meant I had to do things differently and alter my way of thinking. But learning more is always a good thing."
McManus's string includes the Jonjo O'Neill-trained National hero Don't Push It; lest it be forgotten, it took two to tango round Aintree. Perhaps that is why jockeys get overlooked as sportsmen; the horse is the more obvious athlete in the partnership. "People do tend to think that anything that involves sitting down doesn't involve being fit," said McCoy drily, "but I guarantee I'd strip as hard as any footballer. And it's being that hard that lets my body recover as quickly as it does from injury and knocks. And I'm sure never having smoked or drunk alcohol helps."
A jockey's relationship with his mounts can be fleeting – on, off and on the next one – but is usually tinged with gratitude and often with real affection. "I like horses," said McCoy, "and being around them. But they're like people, they're all different and some you like more than others, not necessarily the champions. There's a smashing little grey horse at Jonjo's called Milo. I'd have gladly had Black Jack Ketchum here after he retired if JP hadn't taken him to Barbados.
"But my favourite was Wichita Lineman, so brave with such a great heart. I don't often cry, but when he fell under me at Fairyhouse and I realised he wasn't going to get up, I did."
McCoy names his victory on the ill-fated gelding at Cheltenham last year, when the pair came from an impossible position to victory in the final stride, as his best-ever performance in the saddle. That sort of never-say-never affair is typical; he wins on horses that should not win. Which is why recent pejorative comments by a TV pundit angered him so; he does not mind criticism but did not like the inference that, on that given occasion, he was not doing his best.
Insiders already know about the phenomenon that is McCoy; in the sitting room of the house near Lambourn he shares with his wife, Chanelle, and their three-year-old daughter, Eve, stand 16 of racing's Oscars from his peers. But the Grand National was the catalyst for the ripples to spread outwards. In June came an OBE for services to horseracing; and last week he was named Sportsman of the Year, in front of fellow Ulsterman Graeme McDowell, by the country's general sports journalists. Next stop, Sports Personality of the Year. "I'm flattered I'm on the list, because most people wouldn't know who I am. If I could win it, it would be great for racing, more so than for myself. But there are higher-profile people from higher-profile sports more likely to win, who would probably be a better value bet."
For those on McCoy's side of the fence, it is to be hoped that, as they are popularly supposed to be, jockeys are the worst tipsters.
Sports Personality of the Year: The runners and riders
Tony McCoy (5-6 favourite): Finest jump jockey of all time, and finally won the Grand National this year (at his 15th attempt) on Don't Push It.
Graeme McDowell (4-1): Coming up fast on the rails. Won the US Open, sank the putt which won the Ryder Cup and beat Tiger Woods in a play-off last week.
Phil Taylor (7-1): Carrying top weight, The Power has powerful support from a big chunk of the public who want to see a dartist lift the SPOTY crown.
Lee Westwood (10-1): Thoroughbred performer who is now golf's world No 1, ending Tiger's 281-week reign. Unlike McDowell, still hasn't won a major.
Graeme Swann (10-1): A dark horse whose odds could tumble dramatically if he spins England to another Ashes victory next week.
Amy Williams (12-1): Not worth a punt. Sprung to life in the skeleton to win GB's only gold at the Winter Olympics but her chances are on thin ice.
Tom Daley (25-1): Young colt who will become a thoroughbred. World champ and double Commonwealth Games gold medallist. Wiser to back him for 2012.
Jessica Ennis (25-1): European champ and all-round golden girl but just an also-ran here. Expect her to give Daley a run for his money in 2012.
Mark Cavendish (80-1): Will pull up in the final furlong. The Mad Manx won five Tour de France stages but missed out on the green jersey.
David Haye (100-1): Rank outsider will fall at the first hurdle. Knocked out Audley Harrison, but so could the other nine contenders.
Odds courtesy of LadbrokesReuse content