Ali v Frazier, Borg v McEnroe, Nicklaus v Watson, Federer v Nadal, Denman v Kauto Star... spot the odd one out. The answer is that there isn't one; whether horses or humans, these names evoke some of the great sporting duels of the past 40 years, and when the next chapter of the story of two remarkable stablemates unfolds at the Cheltenham Festival a week today, it will have an intriguing extra dimension: Tony McCoy v Ruby Walsh.
In next Friday's Gold Cup, according to the bookmakers, Walsh and Kauto Star will prevail. McCoy has only had one competitive ride on Denman, in the Aon Chase at Newbury last month, and it was a disaster, the champion jockey parting company with his formidable mount at the third-last. This fuelled talk in some racing circles that the partnership of McCoy and Denman is doomed to fail. McCoy's style is to impose his will on a horse, they say, and Denman's style is to impose his will on a race. It is a meeting of the immovable object and the irresistible force. Trainer Paul Nicholls, they mutter, should have kept faith with Sam Thomas, the jockey who rode Denman to a memorable Gold Cup win in 2008. A tipster in the Racing Post rudely opined that McCoy would not be his first, second, third or even fourth choice to partner the big bruiser, Denman.
The weighing room at Ludlow racecourse is a place for weighing jockeys, not insults, but it is there that McCoy, with the ghost of a smile, considers this tipster's words. "Everyone gets criticism at some stage in their life," he says. "As it happens, I'm my own greatest critic, but the opinions of some people I respect more than others. He [the Racing Post man] is not John Francome, he's not Ruby Walsh. If I heard that they had criticised me, I'd go and ask what I was doing wrong. But this had no impact on me whatsoever."
McCoy has just changed out of his silks after riding in the four o'clock, and is not due in the saddle again until the 5.30, Ludlow's last race of the afternoon. I have a good chunk of time with him, all the more reason not to irk him early in the conversation by citing charges that, as champion jockey in each of the last 14 seasons, with more than 3,000 career winners under a belt still fastened on the same notch as it was when I last met him, in 1999, he surely should not be made to defend. Yet he is not irked. Perhaps the supreme sporting competitor of the age, off the track he remains the most equable of men, even when I raise the theory that he is too forceful a jockey to ride such a forceful horse.
"If you read between the lines," he says quietly, the County Antrim vowels softer than they used to be, "they're saying that I'm a very one-dimensional jockey. I don't know how to look at that. I'd have thought a one-dimensional jockey wouldn't ride as many winners as I do. Because every horse is different and I don't remember riding every horse the same way."
Nonetheless, the jury is still out on the question of whether it was McCoy's error at Newbury, or Denman's. McCoy leaves no doubt what he thinks. "Up until he made the mistake he didn't feel like a horse I wasn't getting on with. But if anything there's less pressure on him, and me, than there was. The experts are all expecting Kauto Star to win now. All the pressure's on him."
Maybe, and yet the Gold Cup is not a two-horse race, any more than Cheltenham is a one-race meeting. Indeed, one of the highlights of last year's Festival was McCoy's stupendous ride on Wichita Lineman in the William Hill Chase. A dozen horses back just three fences from home, the 5-1 shot won by a neck in the most thrilling of finishes, and if there was ever a single act of horsemanship with which McCoy earned his substantial retainer from owner J P McManus, that, on an elated McManus's 58th birthday, was it.
"Wichy was a great little horse, full of heart," says McCoy. He talks in the past tense because in his very next ride on Wichita Lineman – in fact, at the very next fence following their Cheltenham heroics, the first in the Irish Grand National – tragedy struck. "He brushed the top of the fence, crumpled over, and another horse coming along hit him just as he was getting up. He broke his back. I felt like crying the day he won at Cheltenham, and I did cry the day he got killed at Fairyhouse. I'd had two Festival wins on him. He was one of my favourite horses of all time because of the days he gave me."
But jockeys can't afford to dwell on the past, still less punters. A look at next week's McManus-owned runners doesn't tempt too many readies from the wallet, and McCoy concedes that "JP doesn't have as many good ones as we would like. But he has plenty of chances at Cheltenham. He has three and four runners in most of the handicaps, though God knows which ones I'll ride. It's true that he has no real flagbearer horse. When I started riding for JP, he had Baracouda, and it's hard to replace horses like that. Ruby's lucky. He has Kauto Star, Master Minded, Big Buck's, and he's entitled to ride them because he's a brilliant jockey, but..."
But... it's a sentence he scarcely needs to finish. The best chance of a McManus-owned, Jonjo O' Neill-trained, A P McCoy-ridden winner looks like Get Me Out Of Here in the Festival's opening race, the Supreme Novices' Hurdle. "Captain Cee Bee will probably be favourite for the Arkle," adds McCoy, of his Irish-trained mount in Tuesday's second race. "But it's the Arkle, you know. It's probably the hardest race of the Festival to win, two miles flat to the boards. You need luck."
McCoy, though, has won the Arkle three times. Here is a man who embodies Gary Player's old dictum, perhaps even more than Player himself, that the harder you practise, the luckier you get. And if his work ethic is forged out of steel, his determination is even tougher. On 12 January, 2008, in a fall at Warwick, McCoy broke his back. He was given the slimmest of chances of recovering in time for Cheltenham. But he did.
Just a couple of months before that fall, McCoy had become a father, his wife Chanelle giving birth to little Eve. If the broken back didn't fill his head with thoughts of mortality, a new baby surely did? "Not really," he says. "Having Eve hasn't made me any different. All it does is help, because I might get home grumpy, thinking my career's in tatters, and if I'm home before half seven then as soon as I put my keys in the door I hear her roaring 'daddy' from wherever she might be. That quickly gets me over my bad day."
The really bad day will be the one when he realises he is not going be champion jockey any more, and that, he says, will also be the day he quits. In the meantime, his competitive zeal shows as much chance of receding as the incoming tide. "I decided a long time ago that either I would be all in, or not in," he explains. "So I work Monday to Monday, because much as we would all like to win more big races, and ride good horses every Saturday, we don't. Well, Ruby does. But I have to keep it going seven days a week."
Practically everyone in and around National Hunt racing theorises about the differences between AP and Ruby in the saddle, but what are they from, as it were, the horse's mouth? "I don't know that there's a lot. He's probably a lot quieter on a horse than I am. We're all different. Frankie [Dettori] sits a lot quieter than [Kieren] Fallon."
He cites the two greatest Flat jockeys – the McCoy and Walsh, if you will – of their era. But it is the greatest Flat jockey of any era, Sir Gordon Richards, with whom he is more often compared. In 2002 McCoy broke, by fully 20 wins, Richards' 55-year-old record of 269 winners in a season. It is, he insists, his most notable achievement, a more considerable feat even than his mammoth total of career wins. "I can't see another jump jockey doing that for as long as I'm alive," he says, without the faintest trace of braggadocio.
The anomaly always raised at this time of year is that his prodigious list of wins does not feature the Grand National. And so I raise it too. He smiles. "I see I'm 16-1 to win the Grand National this year, but I don't think I've got a horse shorter than 33-1 to ride. Every jump jockey would love to win it. It's the highest-profile race in the world no matter what anyone says. But it only comes round once a year. I've been third three times. All I can do is keep trying."
He yearns to win the National, I fancy, as much for J P McManus as for himself. They talk, the two Irishmen universally known by their initials, most days. "People ask why he has so many horses in training that are not very good, whatever, but then they have no idea how much he loves racing. He's obsessed, more than anyone I've ever met. Obviously Cheltenham is the highlight of his year, but JP just loves racing, to an unbelievable degree. And racing is very lucky to have him."
Racing is lucky to have AP too, and not just because of his achievements in the saddle. He cares deeply about his sport, and, increasingly, challenges the way in which it is run. He recently made an eloquent case for having fewer race meetings and more prize-money. And if it were left to him, he would abolish entrance fees at all but Cheltenham and the grandest meetings. "If people feel they're getting a little bit of something for nothing, they'll show up," he says. "Once they're in, there are bars and restaurants, ways of getting them to spend money. But it's impossible to get money off people if they're not there."
His beloved football could do with the same economic acumen. McCoy is a famously devoted Arsenal fan, and so I ask him what he, who has broken so many bones, would say to Aaron Ramsey as the youngster recovers from such a badly broken leg?
"He's got to believe that he's going to heal quickly," he says. "And he's got to want to be better than Cesc Fabregas. Lester Piggott and Liam Brady were my heroes when I was a kid, and obviously I was too heavy to ride on the Flat, so I targeted Richard Dunwoody. He was champion jockey when I started, so I wanted to ride more winners than him. That kept me motivated even when I was out injured. Ramsey should do the same with Fabregas."
As a fan, too, of the Republic of Ireland, has he forgiven the former darling of Highbury for the infamous World Cup qualifier handball? "Thierry? What a scandalous carry-on." A grin. "No, I'd have done it meself..." And with that, A P McCoy shakes my hand and goes to change into his silks for the last race of the afternoon, on the favourite Carribs Leap. On which he duly records the 3,222nd win of a truly extraordinary career.
Tony McCoy endorses Racing For Change, which aims to attract more people to the races. Between 26 April and 1 May, nine racecourses are offering free entrance. For details, see www.gototheraces.com, or write to Try Racing, Racing For Change, 75 High Holborn, London WC1V 6L5.
Born: 4 May 1974, County Antrim, Northern Ireland.
Gold Cup: 1997, Mr Mulligan.
Champion Hurdle: 1997, Make A Stand; 2006, Brave Inca.
Queen Mother Champion Chase: 2000, Edredon Bleu.
Champion jump jockey 14 times.
Rode 289 winners in 2001-02 season, a record for a British jockey.
Leading rider at the Festival in 1997 (3 winners)and 1998 (5 winners).Reuse content