I was at a rainy Gowran Park in 1994 for Tony McCoy's first ever winner over jumps. Riszard was the horse's name. It would be nice to be able to say the sky opened, shining beams of predictive illumination. But that would be bullshit. At a push most scribblers on duty might recall noting a headline-friendly surname, and a kid with a big chin apprenticed to Jim Bolger: so good luck with that, we'd have figured.
At the time Bolger’s reputation as one of Ireland’s greatest trainers wasn’t confined to just horses. It also included a proven track record at moulding young jockeys under a no-nonsense regime which racecourse rumour suggested might be a cross between Parris Island and a gulag. Despite that, young riding talent clamoured to be let in: opportunity trumps cushy every time.
But what’s sometimes forgotten now is the adolescent McCoy wasn’t even near the top of that local pecking order, never mind any other. In fact a few months after Riszard’s victory, his rider had left for England without fanfare, just another Irish young fella too heavy for the flat game looking for a start across the water over fences. That within just two years he managed to become champion jockey was a mind-boggling achievement in a career that has become full of them, the latest of which is the 4,000 winner landmark that in all likelihood McCoy will reach at some stage this week. In a story that has already torn record- books to shreds, this is just more statistical evidence of what must constitute the single greatest ever example of raw willpower in sport.
Pain and danger
It's a macho affectation of many sports to big up the horror, glory in the pain, relish the danger, yada-yadda. But jump racing is the only sport where you know you are going to be badly hurt. There are no ifs and buts: if you ride horses over fences it is only a matter of time before you break.
No other sport is so mentally stark. Race cars and you might get lucky. Box well enough and you might never get tagged. Cycle to the top of the Alps and its downhill the other side. Basically, do it right and you reduce the pain and danger.
But no such psychological balm exists in jump-racing. Pain and danger are never more than the next jump away. No amount of talent excuses a jockey from that reality, and McCoy’s story has never been about outrageous talent anyway.
Some observers who saw his first winner over fences, Chickabiddy at Exeter in 1994, apparently all but looked away such was the lack of polish. At the time, it was another North of Ireland man, Richard Dunwoody, who reigned at the top of the game. An obsessive personality himself, Dunwoody's brutal desire to win was cloaked in a natural style and polish that could make jumping a fence look an organically cooperative exercise between man and beast. There was an aestheticism to it. McCoy has never cared how he gets to the other side, just so long as he gets there, in front.
It doesn’t always look pretty but there has never been any arguing with the results, or the raging desire that conjures those results. Champion jockey for the first time in 1996, he has retained the crown every year since, despite collecting a range of injuries that other riders might proudly recite but which McCoy dismisses as irritants in his pursuit of the next win.
At 39, he is now at an age when every season represents a bonus and yet he gives no indication of slowing down, getting bored, or settling for a married man's pace that might be forgivably even more marital considering McCoy is also a father of two. Some might dismiss such blinkered devotion to winning as evidence of a chronic lack of imagination, a failure to consider how much he has to lose.
But McCoy is no fool. He knows he breaks, but considers himself unbreakable. The mental resilience required to maintain such an attitude actually dwarfs the physical toughness that jump jockeys regard as de rigueur anyway.
An undisputedly great rider, there is no insult in pointing out how the instinctive rush to label him the greatest ever because of his unparalleled success appears misplaced. If such distinctions came down to just figures, Ben Hogan would be only half the golfer Jack Nicklaus was, which would be news to Nicklaus who remained in awe of the flinty Texan even at his peak.
Just as Roger Federer's statistical claim to be tennis' best-ever through Grand- Slam wins is hard to equate to his head-to-head record with Rafa Nadal, McCoy's claims to be the best around right now stumble against many professional views that Ruby Walsh represents a more rounded combination of power and subtlety in the saddle. And that's not even taking into account names like Dunwoody, John Francome and Fred Winter casting Laver-like shadows from the past.
In comparison McCoy can sometimes appear a more one-dimensional jockey. It is no coincidence that polls about his greatest ever ride involve examples of apparent lost-causes retrieved by the near-manic desire of the man on top to never give up. But as dimensions go, the sight of McCoy coiled in a ferocity of will on the run to the last is perhaps the most enthralling in the entire sport. Who could have known?