The indestructible AP McCoy -- is he Britain’s most successful sportsman ever?

The tributes have flowed for champion Jumps jockey Tony ‘AP’ McCoy as his extraordinary achievement in clocking up 4,000 winning rides came to a glorious conclusion. Here is one well worth reading -- by TOM RICHMOND, columnist for one of our sister papers, the ‘Yorkshire Post’.

Thursday, 7th November 2013, 9:07 am
Tony McCoy on Well Hello There, following the fifth race, The Smith and Williamson Handicap Steeple Chase, at Exeter Racecourse, Exeter. PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo. Picture date: Tuesday November 5, 2013. See PA Story RACING Exeter. Photo credit should read: Tim Ireland/PA Wire.
Tony McCoy on Well Hello There, following the fifth race, The Smith and Williamson Handicap Steeple Chase, at Exeter Racecourse, Exeter. PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo. Picture date: Tuesday November 5, 2013. See PA Story RACING Exeter. Photo credit should read: Tim Ireland/PA Wire.

There is a very strong argument, as he completes his record-breaking 4,000th winner, for declaring the indestructible AP McCoy as Britain’s most successful sportsman – ever.

In a sport where National Hunt riders, the bravest of the brave when it comes to sporting courage, are never more than a split-second away from calamity – as McCoy can testify from 20 years of bone-crunching falls – his longevity should be placed in wider context.

This riding ‘freak’ won the first of his record 18 championships in the 1995/96 season – 1995 being the year when Jonathan Edwards broke the world triple jump record; larger-than-life golfer John Daly won The Open and a Nelson Mandela-inspired South Africa lifted rugby union’s World Cup. It was also the year when the new darling of Manchester United, Adnan Januzaj, was born.

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History lesson over, here is the most compelling fact of all. The 39-year-old, unnaturally tall for a jump jockey at 5ft 10ins, is still the undefeated champion of National Hunt racing.

That’s right. In every year since 1995/96, he has ridden more winners than any of his rivals – even though he sacrifices at least two hours a day sweating in a sauna to make his racing weight of 10st 5lb (his natural weight is 12st).

Contrast this to the talismanic Olympic oarsman Sir Steve Redgrave whose five successive gold medals spanned a mere 16 years. Or Roger Federer’s record 237 consecutive weeks as the world’s highest-ranked tennis player. McCoy’s dominance now spans 936 weeks and counting.

Perhaps only Ryan Giggs, the wing wizard who won an unrivalled 13 Premier League trophies during Sir Alex Ferguson’s reign at Manchester United, can compete with McCoy in the longevity stakes. But even he loses ground when it comes to consistency. There were seven seasons when the Red Devils were not domestic champions.

This is why comparing sports stars from different disciplines is so challenging. Just how does a rider like McCoy measure up against the mercurial Giggs, a team player, who was part of one of this country’s finest ever football dynasties?

But there are two other reasons that edge the debate in McCoy’s favour by a short-head – his determination and his humility.

Consider his work ethic. He is still remorseless in his drive to remain champion. Up at daybreak, he will spend two hours riding out horses on the gallops – invariably in the wet and wind – before his first sauna session of the day. And this is before he gets to the races.

Consider also the frugal nature of his diet, which is still restricted to just four evening meals a week.

As Nicky Henderson, the current champion trainer, says: “If he wants to do something, he will. Nothing, and I mean nothing, will stop him.”

This explains McCoy’s iron-will to lift his battered body – complete with broken ribs – from its sick bed and resume riding after Jason Maguire, a former Grand National winner, had the temerity to suggest in April that he would become champion this season.

He took offence at the suggestion that he was a diminished force, and the champion is now more than 50 winners clear of his rival. Only a serious injury, as opposed to a feigning footballer’s muscle-pull, will deny him a 19th successive title.

Martin Pipe, a trainer who endured a long association with McCoy, has said that his own record of 4,182 winners will never be beaten by AP. A mistake. This is the total that now drives the champion who, tantalisingly, refuses to rule out an attempt to surpass the 4,870 wins that Sir Gordon Richards achieved on the Flat.

It is the key to McCoy. He has to have new targets in order to maintain his ridiculously high standards -- in contrast to those mercenary footballers who are content to go through the motions for obscene sums of money, an ageing golfer who can no longer compete at the top or a cheating cricketer who is prepared to betray his sport’s history of fair play.

Henderson, though, has another theory. He believes that this top rider is fearful of the day when he has to quit the saddle because he could not survive the “mental torture” of training – or no longer being a sportsman without equal.

Yet Sam Twiston-Davies disagrees. At 21, he is a potential champion jockey after a string of eyecatching wins. But he makes two compelling points. First, the phrase ‘heir to AP’ is invalid because there will never be another McCoy. Second, his hero is riding better than ever.

Twiston-Davies should know. In the finale at Aintree last month, he should have won the Bumper – but soon found himself drawn into a protracted struggle with McCoy’s mount who was not travelling with the same ease. McCoy finally prevailed in a head-bobbing photo-finish.

“He’s stronger than ever,” says Twiston-Davies. “Even though all jockeys take so much more care of their diet and fitness, he’s still better than ever. We’ve all got better and jump racing has never been more competitive, but he is still improving.”

He then makes one other point. AP McCoy may be a great champion – as evidenced by his Grand National win on Don’t Push It and Cheltenham Gold Cup triumphs on Mr Mulligan and Synchronised – but he is an even more accomplished human being. Why? Because he has never considered himself to be greater than his sport. He is the first person to invariably visit a stricken rider in hospital, offer a stranded jockey a lift home or digs for the night or give some encouragement to a young apprentice. Can other ‘role models’ match this humanity? I’m not aware of one.

As a sportsman, AP McCoy has dominated like very few others. But, as a role model, his example shines even more brightly. His like will not be seen again. To this correspondent, he is without comparison.

And another thing...

If sports fans want a photograph with their hero, and I don’t blame them if they do, could they please show some manners?

I make this plea after watching AP McCoy deal with wellwishers at Wetherby last Saturday when he recorded winners 3,993 and 3,994 of his career.

As ‘the champ’ negotiated the crowded weighing-room steps before and after his six races, there were the autograph hunters who asked for a racecard to be signed – and then kept McCoy waiting as they searched frantically for a pen.

Then there were the racegoers asking for pictures of them with McCoy to be taken on their camera phone – and only then trying to press-gang somebody to press the ‘click’ button.

And then there were those who did not even have the courtesy to say thankyou. How rude.

Between races, a jockey has less than 15 minutes to change into the right silks, clean their goggles, weigh out and talk to connections.

The response of many top Flat riders is to ignore requests from racegoers. Yet National Hunt jockeys are a different breed, as exemplified by McCoy’s patience in responding to every request with patience and a smile. A class apart.