Sunday 15 February 2015

A.P. McCoy’s Retirement: “Time waits for no man. And it certainly isn’t going to wait for me.”

As you get older, you definitely struggle to remember names, telephone numbers and where you left the car keys. But for some strange reason you never forget winning bets. Rolling the clock back: a grey, drizzly day at Plumpton, 9th December 1997. A scratchy-actioned trainer in signature black donkey jacket leads a horse out from the parade ring, taps the boot of the rider and quietly emphasises, “Maximum persuasion, Anthony, maximum persuasion.” The horse in question was an unremarkable 101 hurdler who had only managed to win once in his 17 previous runs, in an ordinary bumper in Tipperary. However, this was the first run for Unsinkable Boxer for Martin Pipe and Tony McCoy. Backed down to 11/10 favourite, he hacked up by 8 lengths, before going on to win his next six races. His mark jumped to 150, taking in both the Cheltenham and Aintree Festivals. At Cheltenham this horse turned in one of the most impressive handicap wins ever, ridden with supreme confidence by A.P. (and irrelevantly, my largest-ever NH bet to date riding with him) in a 3m 1f hurdle. The race report doesn’t quite capture the ease of the win: “Held up and behind, steady headway 8th, led on the bit approaching 2 out, won in a canter.”

There must be millions of punters around the world who have their own similar memories of the phenomenal, record-breaking rider, A.P. McCoy, who unexpectedly announced his retirement after his 200th winner of the season on board Mr. Mole in the Game Spirit Chase at Newbury. Many of us will have a “J.F. Kennedy” reaction of “Where were you on Saturday, 7th February 2015?” I’ll certainly never forget it – not least because I was at Uttoxeter with one of our horses, where Anthony Honeyball’s Rouquine Sauvage, ridden by his fiancée Rachael Green, was taking part in a 2m mares’ handicap hurdle. There were no connections present to cheer on horse or rider, so my wife and I, together with friends, became “honorary owners” for the day and I had the enjoyable experience, after a super winning ride from Rachael, of being called up to receive the prize as “Mr. J.P. McManus’s representative”. A.P.’s 200th winner was also in J.P.’s silks.

Obviously the statistics relating to A.P. are phenomenal: barring accidents, he will be lifting the trophy for his 20th consecutive jockey championship in the spring; the first jockey ever to ride 4,000 jumps winners (at Towcester, 7th November 2013 – I was also there that day, with a runner); galloped past Gordon Richards’ record of 269 winners with a total of 289 in 2001/02, and probably for A.P. a milestone that really mattered in passing Martin Pipe’s career tally of 4,191 on 18th July 2014. From then on there was only one more record, realistically, for him to break, and that certainly seemed likely at the start of this season: he had had his fastest-ever 50th, 100th and 150th winners when a bone-crunching fall at Worcester dislocated his collarbone, cracked a few ribs and punctured a lung, before a few weeks later breaking the same collarbone that he had earlier dislocated. The goal of 300 winners in a season then became impossible.

After the announcement of retirement, lots of commonality in the descriptions: determined, obsessive, driven, phlegmatic, disciplined, iron man. In his own words, one comment summed him up. “There have been loads of better riders than me: John Francome, Richard Dunwoody, Peter Scudamore, Charlie Swan, Ruby Walsh, Richard Johnson and Barry Geraghty. But I’ve been an over-achiever ….. The trick is that you mustn’t get too up, and you mustn’t get too down. It’s the fear of losing that matters, rather than the enjoyment of winning. That’s what keeps you going.”

So from now till the end of the season there is quite rightly bound to be a celebration wherever he rides, and it is most definitely a public relations godsend for racing. From the very next day, the Sunday after his retirement, the sports pages were full of photos and commentaries. Without any doubt there is a tremendous amount of goodwill towards A.P. and his family, and everyone is now hoping that he gets through to the end of the season in one piece and good shape, before deciding what to do next. It’s a real pity that racing doesn’t have its own version of the U.S. Hall of Fame to capture and acknowledge his immense stature and contribution to National Hunt racing.

The final comment is from J.P.: “Anthony was a great man to have on your side. To be sure, I wouldn’t have wanted to have him against me.”

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