Tony McCoy reaches 4,000 winners mark: Legendary jockey's marvellous milestone the result of a fierce will to win
Tunnel vision and determination carry champion to jumps landmark
Thursday 07 November 2013
It may be appropriate that, up until his 4,000th jumps winner on Mountain Tunes at Towcester, the feat of which Tony McCoy was proudest was that of beating one of his sport's most enduring records, Sir Gordon Richards' 1947 tally of 269 winners in a season. McCoy passed that particular milestone in 2002, just one of so many along his way. Two of the constant questions about his extraordinary achievements have been why and how and Richards, in his autobiography published 58 years ago, could have been telling of our man when he summed up his career.
His final chapter was entitled "The Secret Of My Success", but anyone hoping for a deep and meaningful analysis of his motivation no more got it from him than from the modern phenomenon. But perhaps a statement of the bleedin' obvious needs no further embellishment. "The will to win," wrote the 26-times Flat champion, "that was my secret. You have to have ability, you have to have the gift of jockeyship, you have to be a horseman, you must learn to judge pace and distance, you must be quick to see an opening, you must sense when your horse is doing his utmost and when he is not, you must never miss a trick. But all these things are no use to you without the will to win. And that means concentration on the job, at all times."
Whatever McCoy's technical talents, they have been developed and honed by that last. His dedication and resolution, single-mindedness and tunnel vision 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 a combination of exercise, sweating in saunas and hot baths and moderate, sometimes frugal, eating.
The man from Moneyglass, Co Antrim, has raised the bar beyond reach, almost beyond imagination, and started doing so from the start. He won the apprentices' title with a record total, has been champion every senior season since and should collect a 19th title next April. In his record-breaking season he became the only jump jockey to ride a four-figure total of mounts - he climbed into the saddle 1,006 times - and posted a score of 289, at a strike rate of 29 per cent. He set time records for his totals - fastest 500, 1,000, 2,000. He is the only man to have ridden 3,000 jump winners, which he did four years ago, and has amassed nearly 1,500 more than the next man, the 14-times championship runner-up Richard Johnson.
Make no mistake, there is quality in there too. He has won just about every major race in the calendar, including two Cheltenham Gold Cups, three Champion Hurdles, a King George VI Chase and, famously at his 15th attempt three years ago, a Grand National. Ironically, it was his triumph in a race that depends as much on luck as skill in the winning that thrust him fully into the sporting public's consciousness and made him the first jockey to become the BBC's Sports Personality of the Year. The trade has long known about him; he has been voted to 20 Lesters - racing's Oscars - by his peers.
But it is the numbers, and the targets they represent, that give one of the clues to what sets him apart. Nearly any jockey can win on a horse that is measurably better than its opponents, but only a few win on horses that should not win and only one around at the moment does so on a fairly regular basis. It may be significant that, in the relatively recent history of in-play online betting, McCoy has easily the best record for winning on a beast whose chance had supposedly gone and who traded at 1,000-1 in running.
On Family Business at Southwell, for instance, he fell with more than a circuit to race, but remounted and persevered; on Folie A Deux at Warwick he was a well-detached last with half a mile to run, still last at the final fence but half a length in front at the line. He himself nominates a success of the type, when he motivated the quirky but talented Wichita Lineman to victory in the final strides of the William Hill Trophy at the 2011 Cheltenham Festival, as his best performance in the saddle. Others to stick in the mind are Pridwell's head defeat of the peerless Istabraq at Aintree and more recently Synchronised's success in the Cheltenham Gold Cup last year.
The job of jump jockey is one of the few where the participants are routinely followed round by an ambulance as they get on with it and McCoy has broken or dislocated almost every bone in his body (a lot of them several times), including vertebrae, shoulder blades, ribs, legs, ankle, cheekbones, collarbones, fingers and teeth. Famously, he suffered a broken back at Warwick in January 2008, the type of injury that usually takes 16 weeks to heal but, with the Cheltenham Festival as a spur and the help of five sessions in 10 days in a cryotherapy chamber at temperatures of a record minus 149C, he was back in eight.
His obsession was rewarded on that occasion with a victory on Albertas Run at his sport's showpiece occasion.
His body is as strong as his mind and a litany of his injuries, and recovery processes, apparently gobsmacked no less a fellow sports star than Tiger Woods when the pair played together in a charity golf tournament a few years ago.
But again, McCoy's view - part down to heredity, part to environment - is that if that is what it takes, that is what it takes. He followed the example of his hard-working carpenter and builder father Peadar; he served his time as a young jockey first with local man Billy Rock, then in Co Carlow with Jim Bolger, whose regime tended to make a Jesuit college look relaxedly liberal; he has never drunk alcohol or smoked.
McCoy rode both his first winner, Legal Steps, in a Flat race at Thurles in 1992 at the age of 17, and his first jumps winner, on Riszard at Gowran Park two years later, for Bolger, with his first British winner coming on Chickabiddy for Gordon Edwards later in 1994. In 1997 he joined forces with Martin Pipe and became part of that 15-times champion trainer's winning conveyor belt. It was the desire for new challenges (and perhaps a reputed £1m retainer) that nine years ago took him to the job as retained rider to J P McManus, whose chief trainer in Britain is Jonjo O'Neill.
To his delight, the landmark winner Mountain Tunes (given a typical ride of finesse and insistence) is owned by McManus and trained by O'Neill, and came in front of his wife Chanelle and their two children Eve, six today, and three-month-old Archie Peadar, the baby dressed in a babygro matching McManus's green-and-yellow silks. The youngsters are particularly precious; McCoy's fertility was badly affected by the privations of his professional life.
Throughout everything, 39-year-old McCoy - who has always said he will not retire while he is still capable of being champion - has stayed humble, aware of his ability but not dazzled by it. "I don't feel I'm any different to anyone else," he said, "and I hope everyone in the weighing room doesn't think I am any different after today. I've ridden 4,000 winners, I'll try to ride a few more. I'm really proud of what I've achieved and being able to last, one way or another. I'm proud, and feel privileged and lucky to work in a great sport."
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