Tony McCoy’s record doesn’t get the credit it deserves, but it’s what lies behind that makes him Ireland’s greatest modern sportperson and his a story we should all ingest before it’s too late, writes Ewan MacKenna
Last Saturday night, just like so many others, a couple left the terminal at Dublin Airport, headed for the taxi rank and hailed a cab. Inside, like so many others, the driver was quick on the draw, gunning for conversation, so he looked in his mirror and fired. “Did you hear McCoy is retiring?” The couple said nothing but smirked because one wasn’t like any other. Instead, it was Tony McCoy, accompanied by his wife Chanelle, just back from a day in the saddle at Newbury.
No story could have surmised the jockey and his career any better. Famous but unrecognisable. Legendry but underappreciated. Ferocious but understated. And, there’s an easy argument to be made that he’s the greatest Irish sportsperson of modern times.
When McCoy announced on Channel 4 racing that 20 professional seasons would be enough and the Bet365 Gold Cup meeting at Sandown in April would be the end, you went scurrying for old notepads, looking for your scribbles after an interview from April 2010. You’d met in the immediate aftermath of his Grand National victory and, finally, in a pile of paper you came across your thoughts. Written at the top, three words were underlined. “OBESSED. UNBREAKABLE. HERO”
They are sentiments often overlooked by those of us without a real familiarity with and understanding of his sport. A thousand times we’ve seen his name flash up on sports pages but we brushed by and never stopped to consider, instead rushing for the comfort of soccer and rugby and Gaelic games. A close friend once joked that racing is an extension of agriculture but in all seriousness, for those at a distance, it can be hard to compare jockeys with other sportspeople, such is their nature and nurture. But scratch and scrawb and you realise that McCoy just isn’t comparable.
Quietly in our midst for the last two decades has been a man with steel like Collins, a hatred of losing comparable with Keane, poise like Shefflin, modesty similar to O’Driscoll, an incomprehensible talent akin to McIlroy. But his achievements are greater than any of them. When McCoy went professional in 1995, Collins had just discovered where Millstreet was; Keane was sent off for the first time in English football for stamping on Gareth Southgate; Shefflin was a lump of an under-16 who no one made any great predictions for; O’Driscoll was finding himself and stopped playing school’s rugby because of pressure; McIlroy was six. That’s how long ago yet, between then and now, McCoy has been champion jockey in Britain every single season.
Those who live racing can tell you better about the victories in the Gold Cup, Champion Hurdle, Queen Mother Champion Chase, King George VI Chase and Grand National. They can reminisce more knowledgably about the 1,500th winner at Exeter, 2,000th at Wincanton, 3,000th at Plumpton, 4,000th at Towcester. But while there are endless records to demonstrate the dominance, it’s the how and not the what that needs to be dredged up and ingested. Sure, the statistics make him beyond good, but it’s what lay behind them that makes him truly great and truly different.
Some things you should know about Tony McCoy. Most mornings across that brilliant career, he’d crawl into a bath of boiling water where the last droplet of sweat would join the tears of pain running down his brow. Once when you asked him he merely shrugged. “People say things about me as if I deserve sympathy. Like the heat of the water in the baths I take to lose weight. That’s pure greed from me. No one is putting pressure on me.” But to stay at 10 stone while nearing 5’9 there was more than just scaldings. In fact his brother-in-law and former Derry player Brian McCormick remembers offering a crisp to McCoy only for him to lick it and throw it away the rest. For 20 years breakfast has been a slice of toast, he’s allowed himself a lot of sugar in his tea for a bit of energy over lunch and dinner has been plain and simple fish. And all for so many unglamorous outings.
The day after he finally won his Grand National after a lifetime of trying, he was in Southwell. From 70,000 people to 4,000. From the glamour of Aintree to the butt of a joke. After all, which three racecourses begin with ‘F’? Fakenham, Fontwell and f**king Southwell. Then again, this is the same man who asked his sister if she’d checked was there racing that day when told about her wedding arrangements. The same man who said giving birth wasn’t that big a deal in terms of pain after watching his wife give him a daughter, before he hopped into the bed beside her with the Racing Post. The same man who couldn’t feel her touch as she ran her fingers down the left side of his face because a horse’s knee bounced off there once and destroyed the nerve endings.
Indeed the story goes that shorty after signing a deal with JP McManus, he was riding Risk Accessor and, when his horse skidded on the wet ground, McCoy came off, got kicked in the face and lost four teeth. But just a few minutes later trainer Jonjo O’Neill was telling his replacement jockey he wouldn’t be needed and 30 minutes later McCoy was being interviewed after riding Black Jack Ketchum to victory. There was blood streaming down his face as he told the world he was not too bad. “In my opinion,” he later told you, “the more you do something the better you get at it and that applies to falling and a pain threshold as well.”
For the making of such a man, it’s best to go back to his youth. He avoided being shaped by the Troubles in Antrim and instead claims it was Jim Bolger’s yard in Carlow where he was honed and moulded into an unstoppable force. With the aim of riding on the more glamorous flat, one day a colt he was on charged at a fence, threw him into the air and broke his leg. With McCoy screaming through the morning silence, Bolger approached him and muttered, “Are you sure you’ve broken it?” By the time he made it back into the saddle, he had fattened from 7st 10 to 9st 2 and told his boss he would try to be a jump jockey. The response was equal cutting from Bolger. “You want to be a jump jockey? You’re some fool. I heard you crying like a baby with a broken leg and jump jockeys get that every day of the week. You’re not hard enough. You’re not tough enough to be a jockey.”
“I think a lot of my mental strength came from those years between 15 to 20,” he recalled to you. “It was my first time away from home and it was all about fending for myself. You had to be tough just to survive. Jim was the perfect teacher because if you could stick it out with him you could do anything. That was my crossroads and that’s where a lot of my mental attitude comes from. People talk about what he said to me but I just knew it was his way of saying, ‘Are you man enough?’”
The seed was sown but it took other factors for the crying boy to become the man. The same man that Ruby Walsh remembers pulling into a service station with so he could vomit on the way home after riding on through a broken collar bone at Kempton. “There’s always that there,” he continued back in 2010. “I can’t stop looking over my shoulder. I’m always worried someone will ride more winners than me and that haunts me and, in truth, that takes some of the enjoyment out of it. You win one but there’s a constant pressure there to win the next. And I’d hate to miss a race and some other guy gets my ride and wins. I’d find that tough to deal with. I am terrified not to be champion jockey because the day I am not champion jockey is the day I won’t be riding.
“But people think there’s nothing else to me and I am miserable. But I love what I do. The thing about winning is it becomes a drug. Luckily I’ve never drank or smoked and this gives me my buzz. It’s my high and, like anyone, you want as much of your high as you can get your hands on. So in that regard maybe I am a bit obsessed but wouldn’t dare complain about it because I’m lucky. Because what I am without racing? What do I do next? That has worried me day and night I know I should get over it but I cannot help thinking about it. It scares me. What will I do next?”
He’s two months to work that out. And for those of us peering into his remarkable world, we’ve just two months to truly appreciate what he does and who he is.
Sunday Business Post
15 February, 2015