English sports journalists do that. When they see the name Anthony they automatically abbreviate it to Tony. The same thing happened to Anthony Peter McCoy.
Tony McCoy. AP McCoy. Around Moneyglass, he was always Anthony. In his family, he’s still Anthony.
On this particular subject, I can talk with some authority. A cousin of mine is married to McCoy’s sister, Anne-Marie. Another one of his four sisters, Jane, is one of my work colleagues. When Jane is being hounded in our office for tips on Cheltenham week, she only ever refers to her famous brother as Anthony. In conversations, when she’s relaxed and forgets herself, it’s ‘our Anthony’.
I’ve only met McCoy once. It was at my cousin’s wedding 14 years ago. It was a great day and a better night.
Held in the Slieve Russell Hotel, his sister’s wedding could have afforded McCoy an opportunity to wind down and maybe even eat a meal. After all, he had recently claimed the champion jockey title for a sixth consecutive season.
But that’s not McCoy. For his dinner, he had a bowl of soup. After the meal and speeches, he went to his room and had a hot bath to sweat off a few extra ounces. At 4.30am when some guests were going to bed, they bumped into McCoy in the foyer. He was checking out. He was racing that day.
My favourite anecdote about McCoy’s slavish obsession to his trade is the one about the crisp.
My cousin (I’ve been ordered not to use his name) recounted this story to me a few years ago.
Picture the scene. McCoy, my cousin and Anne-Marie are on a motorway in England, heading to a race meeting. McCoy, a tee-totaller, is driving. My cousin, who is suffering from a ferocious hangover, is dying a thousand deaths in the passenger seat. He is also starving. Conscious of the fact that his brother-in-law probably hasn’t eaten for the last two days, my cousin doesn’t want to complain too loudly. Eventually though, he can’t stick the rumbling in his stomach any longer and he asks McCoy to stop at a service station. McCoy obliges. It’s no problem.
When the journey resumes, my cousin produces a bag of crisps. He offers the bag to McCoy. At first, the jockey declines. Then, a few minutes later, he relents, and asks my cousin to give him one crisp. One crisp is duly handed over. McCoy licks one side. Then he licks the other side. Then he threw the crisp out the window.
What is the source of this unfathomable willpower? Is it a visceral need to win? Or, does his deep-seated love of riding a racehorse mean he’s simply prepared to endure whatever pain his job requires? The BBC’s Mark Sidebottom explored those questions when he conducted a great interview with McCoy at Leopardstown on Sunday.
“I’ve had the most wonderful way of life for the last 25 years. Am I ever going to find something which gives me the buzz, the thrill of winning? No, I’m not, and I’m very well aware of that,” said McCoy.
Sidebottom delved further. Having confirmed that he was going to retire at the end of the season, what exactly was McCoy going to miss? “First and foremost I like riding,” he said. “That’s the reason I became a jockey. I love horses. I love riding them and I was lucky enough that I was able to become successful and have winners.
“The more winners you ride, the greedier you become. The greedier you become, the more you need it.
“The drug becomes more of a need than ever. It’s not a great way of describing it, but I’m probably like a heroin addict. I am not a druggie. I’m just a druggie of a different kind.”
It’s worthwhile studying McCoy’s replies. This is a man who hasn’t eaten a Christmas dinner in 20 years. Yet, two decades of starvation and self-denial are described as “the most wonderful way of life”.
It’s a way of life which started when a quiet boy from Moneyglass in Antrim discovered he loved riding horses.
The prospect of ending this chapter of his life must be slightly terrifying for McCoy. But what will he miss the most, the winning or the taking part? When I discussed this issue with my cousin, I put forward my theory that before sportsmen become successful, their path to glory starts with a genuine love of what they do. It’s not just about winning. It’s the entire process — the pain of preparation, the thrill of competition and the pleasure of being first past the post. Once retired, it’s the whole package which creates the massive void.
My cousin instantly dismissed my well-constructed argument (we’re an opinionated family). To back his case, he provided two examples.
A competent amateur golfer, my cousin has played golf with McCoy. If, after four or five holes, McCoy is playing badly, his behaviour quickly descends into “a real toys out of the pram job”. If McCoy can’t win, he has no interest in taking part. He would gladly quit the round there and then.
The second example surrounded the game of Space Invaders. A few years ago, McCoy’s wife Chanelle bought him the arcade game as a present. McCoy was unaware that my cousin had spent a significant part of his childhood mastering his shooting and evasion techniques in Dan McMullan’s snooker room in Gulladuff. The light-hearted rivalry didn’t last very long. After a few one-sided engagements, the machine was unplugged.
McCoy admits himself that he’s hopelessly addicted to winning. But he provided some support for my theory when he said: “What will I miss? I will miss everything.”
Another very successful Antrim sportsman has written about this topic. The holder of 50 national records in Britain and Ireland, the time-trial specialist Michael Hutchinson spent 10 years sleeping in a tent because it simulated high altitude. (His partner slept in the bed beside the tent). Due to fear of illness and missing training, Hutchinson went five years without going to the cinema. He also avoided concerts and weddings. Why? Because he wanted to go faster. Having retired from professional cycling, Hutchinson has been able to reflect on a lifestyle which bordered on masochism. But he has no regrets. In his aptly titled book ‘Faster’ he wrote: The thing that no-one talks about enough is the sheer pleasure of it. When I was at the height of my abilities, there were moments when the only way I could describe what it was like was to say I felt the way a thoroughbred horse looks at full gallop. There is a balance and a rhythm that is both irresistible and effortless. Like a galloping horse, every bit of you is part of the motion, even the bits that are quite still. The involvement, physically and mentally, is total, because you’ve trained all of you for this one task, and you’ve had the purity of purpose in your life to do it without compromises. Everything you’ve ever done comes to a single point. For a few moments you feel quite perfect.”
I have no doubt that McCoy would be able to identify with every word of that wonderful passage of writing. McCoy already knows that he will never find anything to replace that incredible sensation.
Yes, Anthony McCoy is going to miss racing.
And racing is going to miss him.