“You’ve got to dream, don’t you,” the gaunt and pale champion jockey says as, his eyes flashing with piercing intensity, he confirms that, today, he will attempt to complete the rare double of winning both the Cheltenham Gold Cup and the Grand National in the same year on the same horse.
McCoy plans to ride Synchronised, “an ugly duckling’’, to victory in the Grand National over the brutal jumps of Aintree. Last month McCoy produced one of the supreme performances of his extraordinary career when he transferred his own courage and resolve into Synchronised’s surprising win in the Gold Cup.
“It’s what makes racing,” McCoy says, “chasing down the impossible. No horse has won a Gold Cup and a Grand National in 78 years. The last horse to do it was Golden Miller in 1934. That’s a huge pull for me. You could take the easy option and not run him. But you’ve got to try and do things that people haven’t done before — or haven’t done in a very long time. We’re going to give it a right good go.”
We’re on familiar McCoy territory — few sportsmen can rival his bone-breaking commitment or draining addiction to winning. Yet an Easterafternoon in Lambourn also strips away the iron man and reveals a warm and funny father, a camel-rider and a riveting talker.
In between racing back and forth to apologise for making me wait, McCoy entertains the masses in the beautiful, chalky Berkshire countryside. He and other hungover jockeys, still reeling from their drunken night out at the Lesters, horse-racing’s answer to the Oscars, take to the camels, small ponies and giant rolling balls as they try to beat each other at Lambourn’s annual Open Day. McCoy is consumed as ever. He wins the camel race. He then ensures his team win the overall tomfoolery prize.
We walk around afterwards, only for McCoy to be besieged by people. His wife, Chanelle, and their four-year-old daughter, Eve, eventually lead us back to his car. McCoy grins when asked if Chanelle dragged him on to the dance-floor at 4.30 the previous morning. “Chanelle … Chanelle,” he sighs. “We all had a good night. Chanelle definitely had a great night.”
Eve, meanwhile, cries when she realises her dad is staying behind, to talk, rather than returning home with her. McCoy looks wounded — but assorted small children chant his name in farewell. “Bye AP,” they shout.
Then, getting serious, we sit on the bonnet of a random car for this interview. It’s only much later that we slide off and head for the gallops. All the while, McCoy talks about his compelling tilt at the Gold Cup and Grand National double. Can he really win on Synchronised? “I think I can,” McCoy says. “If he jumps well, Synchronised can definitely win the National. I’m out to smash statistics and break records. It would be amazing if we did it …”
He shakes his head, reminding himself that “would be” is a meaningless phrase. It seems typical of McCoy, this grittiest of sporting icons, that he should attempt such a feat on a relatively unimpressive horse.
“There’s not a lot of presence or stature about him,” McCoy says of Synchronised. “He’s the sort of horse that, if you had 500 to choose from at the sales, he’d probably be the last you’d pick. He’s the ugly duckling. But he’s a winner. He’ll keep digging when others give in. He’s got a lot more heart and courage than talent or ability. He’s a survivor. A grafter. Actually, he’s a survivor and a surpriser. He’s also a lot better than Don’t Push It.”
Two years ago McCoy, at last, won the National on Don’t Push It. He now has the taste for an even more significant victory. “Synchronised came out of the Gold Cup in fantastic shape and we’ve got four weeks between the races. It’s possible.”
McCoy never trades in empty promises. He deals in hard facts and gut instinct. That combination has brought him 16 successive champion jockey titles. He will win his 17th later this month. “It’s all over. I’m 50 ahead. That’s why I took a little golfing holiday in Portugal with the boys [the former jump-jockeys Mick Fitzgerald and Carl Llewellyn and the Flat-racing jockey Richard Hughes] last week. The new season starts on April 29 and I want to be fresh. I want next season’s title even more than this season’s.”
Pausing to consider his unquenched desire, McCoy says: “Being champion jockey is by far the most important thing in the world to me — apart from my family. If I lost the jockeys’ championship I wouldn’t ride again. I’ve got no intention of losing it. You know, riding 289 winners in a season [in 2001–02] is my greatest achievement — without a doubt. But I’d love 300 winners one season. This year I thought I was on target. I really thought it might be possible. And then I got that 10-day suspension at Wetherby. You need a lot of luck for 300 winners …”
His more immediate aim is to become the first man to ride 4,000 winners in National Hunt. “I’m around 3,700-and-something. I keep telling [his former trainer] Martin Pipe I’m going to break his record of 4,182 winners. I never forget that one. Take 41 and double it. 4,182. Martin better feel worried. I’m after him.”
It’s easy to toss an outrageous number at McCoy. Could he ride 5,000 winners? “Yes. If I was a Flat jockey. Definitely. If I was a Flat jockey I’d ride until I was 50. But you can’t do that over jumps. I’m just thinking about 4,182.”
McCoy concedes that he’s fallen 700 times. “I don’t count the falls,” he says. “Just the winners.”
Earlier this year, he suffered one of his worst injuries. “At Taunton I was lying on the ground, sore, and my initial reaction was: ‘Fuck it, you got me, horse. You got me.’ It felt the hardest a horse could fall on me. The doctor got there and I couldn’t get up. I could hardly breathe. He said: ‘We’ll get the stretcher for you.’ I said, ‘Fuck, no. I’ve just broken some ribs.’ He said, ‘Look, you can’t move. We’ll get the stretcher.’ I refused. A stretcher for broken ribs? That would be embarrassing. I got up — but we didn’t know then I had broken two ribs at the front and five at the back. I’d punctured my lung. Now I understand why I could hardly stand and breathe.”
McCoy remains thoughtful — despite the raw language. “You get used to the pain. When I break some bones I tell the doc, ‘Look, it’s broken. Give me morphine.’ I broke my arm in 2003 and it was hanging off. I was in agony but I got the doc to give me gas and air and I walked out of the ambulance saying, ‘I’m all right now.’ I’m not going to die from a broken arm. A punctured lung was trickier. But that wasn’t going to kill me either. The only parts of my body I respect are my head and my back. I was in trouble [and in danger of paralysis] a few years ago when I crushed my T9 and T10 vertebrae and fractured both sides of the T12. I couldn’t get up that time. But I was racing seven-and-a-half weeks later.”
Such sobering detail explains why a perennial champion remains so humble. McCoy shrugs: “We’re all the same in the weighing room. As jockeys, mutual respect and humility are important. There’s no space for jealousy or arrogance with so much danger. Every time you go out there you know there’s a fair chance one of you will end up in the back of an ambulance. How can you be arrogant as a jump jockey? The ambulance will get you at some point.”
For anyone who has never met him, or who thinks people in jump racing are cruel, there would perhaps be surprise at seeing how McCoy’s face twitches when he thinks of the friends and horses he has lost.
“I’ve cried my eyes out loads of times over horses that have died. Wichita Lineman was my favourite ever horse and I rode him on the day he died. I cried over him. It was even worse when mates died while racing. I started at Toby Balding’s yard with Richard Davis, in 1996. He and his family were so good to me and I can never forget the day Richard died. The horse [whose fall caused Davis’s death at Southwell in 1996] was Mr Sox. A chestnut horse, with a white face. I can see him now. I can see Richard now. It feels like yesterday — it’s that close.”
The hurt in McCoy is so real that, for a moment, I imagine that chestnut horse with a white face, the sweetly-named Mr Sox. This is McCoy at his most moving — the human being inside the battered body. And, at 37, he is bluntly honest. McCoy does not flinch when admitting that, before they were married, he goaded Chanelle into giving up smoking.
“I had a lot of demons. It’s not a very nice word. But I was very obsessive. I went through stages when, if I wasn’t having a good time, then no one else anywhere near me was going to have a good time. It’s best I’m truthful now. It’s the way I was. But there’s no such thing as having a shit day anymore — it doesn’t wash with Eve. It’s a totally different mindset now to what it used to be. Things still grate on me and annoy me — but not like before.”
The day after he won the National in 2010, McCoy was photographed carrying Eve in his arms. She held up a sign that said, McCoy remembers, “My daddy’s the best jockey.” McCoy laughs: “Ruby Walsh said, ‘She’s a very good writer for a two-year-old’.”
McCoy is now stalked by talk of retirement. “I never used to think about it until I won the National. Now I get asked about it a lot. I’ve won all the races I wanted. But I’m very lucky and unlucky at the same time. I don’t work. I just do what I absolutely love to do. But I’m unlucky in the sense I keep asking myself: ‘How can I give this up? How can I replace it?’ I can’t.”
He brightens when we move on to a comparable sporting figure. Even if he resists such glib analogies only Alex Ferguson can outstrip McCoy for longevity and match his thirst for winning.
“No matter what anyone says about him, Fergie is a fucking genius. I hate that word — genius is so overused. But Fergie’s a genius — because, let’s face it, Man U are shit right now. They’re a shit team. If Fergie had Man City they’d be 15 fucking points clear by now. I’m an Arsenal fan, but I’ve got to know Fergie and it doesn’t matter that he’s 70.
He’ll be there another five years. What’s he going to do? Sit at home?”
McCoy will turn 38 early next month and, poignantly, even with the Gold Cup and the National double uppermost in his mind, he thinks of another fighter.
“I hope to God I can do what Joe Calzaghe did. I have so much respect for him. Joe Calzaghe retired as the undisputed, undefeated champion. He could’ve carried on but he knew. It was time. I’d like to do the same.”
And then, after chatting a while longer and shaking hands, McCoy gives a little wave. Walking down the darkening road he cuts a solitary figure but, looking over his shoulder, he also seems touchingly happy.
“You never know,” he shouts out, thinking once more of the National. “Anything’s possible …”
Copyright: Donald McRae/Guardian News & Media Ltd 2012.