Riding 4,000 winners is one of the greatest feats in British sport. But the phenomenon that is AP McCoy is still not satisfied with his record-breaking achievements.
“I feel I’ve got even more to prove now, than when I started out, because people expect my standards to drop off,” said the 18-times champion jockey in an exclusive interview.
“The day I can no longer be champion is the day I hang up the riding boots. What’s the point in being second?”
This is the nagging self-doubt which underpins an iron-will determination that has seen the 39-year-old become the exemplar for all sporting competitors.
His mantra is no different today to 1995/96 when he won the first of his 18 consecutive championships. Only injury stands between him and a 19th title.
Even though his sport is so dangerous that riders are followed by an ambulance during every race, that he travels in excess of 80,000 miles a year in the pursuit of winners and that he spends up to 16 hours a week in a sauna to keep the weight of his skeletal 5ft 10.5ins frame, excuses do not count. “Jockey error” is a familiar refrain – and part of the standard McCoy self-deprecation.
Only Sir Gordon Richards, Lester Piggott and Pat Eddery have ridden more than 4,000 winners – and their successes came over the Flat. Yet when this icon becomes the first jump jockey to reach this summit, there will be no exuberant celebrations. There are races still to be won – and new feats of endurance to be accomplished.
First, Martin Pipe’s 4,183 winners as a trainer. And then the tantalising possibility of the 4,870 all-time record of victories set by the legendary Richards before injury intervened after his one and only Epsom Derby win on Pinza in 1953 – Coronation year.
McCoy plays down this possibility, but he did make similar sentiments about this current conquest after a mud-splattered Restless d’Artaix provided him with his 3,000th success as recently as February 2009.
While his high ratio of winners to rides suggests he is at the peak of the powers, the 2010 BBC TV Sports Personality of the Year disagrees. “You’ve always got something to prove,” explained racing’s patron saint of lost causes, a title bestowed because of his uncanny knack of winning from hopeless positions – and sometimes on the most hopeless of racehorses.
“I had a couple of winners at Wetherby last Saturday, and two at Carlisle last Sunday,” he said. “It was all right, but I was hoping to have more. I find getting motivated is easy because I love what I do. The more you win, the more it is easier to enjoy. You just have to keep winning.”
Even though his wife Chanelle wants her husband to retire and spend more time with their two young children, he bridles at the suggestion. “She may not like it when I’m under her feet all day!” he laughs.
“You have to set yourself new goals and targets. Champion 20 times? Martin Pipe’s record is something that I’m definitely looking at. Sir Gordon Richards. It’s a long chance. It’s still a lot of winners. If I was five years younger, I wouldn’t think twice.
“I don’t think people would take me seriously if I was still riding at 45. You need to be riding winners, and I’m lucky I ride for great people in Jonjo O’Neill and my owner JP McManus. But they deserve the best.”
Even though McCoy’s current rivals testify that the champion is riding better than ever, this proud son of Moneyglass, County Antrim, disagrees.
He cites 2001/02 when he rode 289 winners in a season – the most ever ridden by a jockey, Flat or National Hunt, in a campaign – as his best. “I am riding pretty OK at the moment,” he says. “But I was better back then because I had more winners.”
There is not a trait of arrogance or complacency in his voice. Take last Sunday. He was the first to congratulate Sue Smith’s young rider Jonathan England after CLOUDY TOO, a chaser of some promise, beat McCoy’s well-fancied mount Tap Night by eight lengths thanks to superior jumping. “It’s nice to beat him, but he always says well done to a young lad after they’ve had a win,” observed England.
It is why the central characters in McCoy’s debut racing thriller, ‘Taking The Fall’ (Orion, £16.99), bear such little resemblance to the current NH weighing room as a young jockey, Duncan Claymore, a rider with a more colourful life than the champion, refuses to be intimidated by the brooding presence of the grizzled veteran Sandy Sanderson in a fast-paced page-turner.
He admits that this exercise took him out of his comfort zone because he wanted the book to be different to the Dick Francis skulduggery and he wanted a rich storyline that could not be compared to his own career. The irony is that teetotal McCoy’s own story is as unbelievable as some of the drink-fuelled debauchery that provides the backdrop to his novel set in the 1970s.
As for the future, he cites Ireland’s Bryan Cooper, the quiet Nick Scholfield and the exciting Sam Twiston-Davies as emerging talents of note. He says the latter’s win on the quirky TIDAL BAY at Wetherby last Saturday was “top class”.
His advice to them – or any other young rider for that matter? “You need to work hard. You would never be able to work too hard. There is no substitute for hard work. No matter how talented you are, you need to work harder.” Pure McCoy.
As for horses, he cites Jessica Harrington’s JEZKI, a Down Royal winner last Friday, as a possible Champion Hurdle contender to rival the record-breaking Hurricane Fly.
As the conversation closes, he is reminded of a horror fall at Wetherby 12 months ago that left him in need of emergency dental treatment, and countless stitches, without the aid of an anaesthetic so that he could race the next day. It is an abiding image, but he says: “It was just superficial. People don’t like the sight of blood. I’ve ridden plenty of times in a worse condition, broken bones even. I got over it. You do.”
This is why AP McCoy should be cherished and celebrated. He is a born winner like no other.