Cheltenham is easier for Tony McCoy now. Easier than when he first retired anyway.
Those first couple of years when he went back to the festival, it was a bit like scraping chewing gum off the bottom of a school desk – most of it comes off at once but it’s the last stubborn strands that are most annoying.
It wasn’t that he missed the adulation. Or the roar of the crowd. Or the friends he’d had in the weighing room going back 20 years. Nothing like that. He had found making his peace with all that fairly straightforward, in fact. He’d never been in it for those reasons in the first place.
Seeing horses win that he would have been riding, though? That’s the stuff that made him bite the back of his fist. In 2016, his first year not riding the festival since the mid-’90s, his old boss JP McManus had only two winners McCoy would have been up on but he had to have a quiet moment with himself both times all the same.
So it’s all a bit more doable now. Now that he’s 47 and there’s nothing left running that he could have won on. There will be plenty of contenders next week that McCoy has ridden work on in his role as one of McManus’s consiglieres. But he won’t itch to be out there, regardless of where they finish. In 2020, McManus had seven winners and McCoy roared them all up the hill.
“The outside world might not think it because they only see these horses as a commodity and just part of your job but when you’re a jockey, you get to know these horses. You like them. You have an attachment to them, even though all you’re doing in a lot of cases is riding them at the racecourse.
“You have an affiliation to them. And then when you’re not on them and they win, it’s like seeing someone running off with an ex-girlfriend or something. You can’t help going, ‘Well, that used to be me’. Especially the good ones. Those first few years were hard in that way.
“Now it’s fine. It’s been seven years now and all the horses I used to ride are retired. So that’s all gone. Nowadays, my biggest problems at Cheltenham are getting used to where everything is. For 20 years, I was in my own bubble in the weigh room. Now, I have to remind myself where I need to go to get a cup or tea or to go to the toilet.”
He’s still involved, albeit at a remove. He will be at Cheltenham for ITV first and foremost but he would be there anyway. He still rides horses pretty much every day, whether that’s calling down to Nicky Henderson’s yard to check on Jonbon or Epatante or Champ, or to Jonjo O’Neill’s to ride out his string of McManus horses. Or wherever else there’s one that could be something.
In the McManus camp, he’s part-advisor, part-futurologist, part-sounding board. He enjoys it, mostly because he doesn’t fool himself into thinking it’s filling a hole created by retirement. He doesn’t do it to replace riding winners. He’s too smart for that.
“I knew for 20 years that when it ended, it was never going to be replaceable,” he says. “You don’t replace winning. You have to learn to live with it. That’s why I gave it everything I had for so long.
“I never got too up or too down because I knew that eventually there would come a time when the feeling you get from winning wasn’t going to be available to me. I have no regrets but I think I have no regrets because I always recognised that you have your time and it won’t last forever.
"I remember having dinner with Paul O'Connell a few months after both of us had retired. And I said to him, 'You could become the next Jeff Bezos, you could invent the next Amazon and become the richest man in the world. It still won't be the same as walking out as captain of Ireland or captain of the Lions'. It ain't coming back. The worst thing you can do is try to replace it because it's just not possible.
“With coaching or management, you’re only kind of in control. Same with what I do for JP. You’re a step removed. Yes, part of what you do will influence the ultimate outcome. You enjoy it. But the result isn’t because of you. Physically, you are not going to be the one performing. So when I look forward, I don’t do it with the intention of finding something to replace winning. It’s about living with it and making yourself happy.”
At the end of the day, I like riding horses. I didn't become a jockey to win Gold Cups or Grand Nationals
And so he does. He was never going to become a trainer. Nobody put in harder yards through the first part of his adult life and the prospect of spending the rest of it ploughing even harder ones did not appeal in any way. Instead, life is family, it’s his various sponsorships and it’s as a core member of the brains trust of the sport’s biggest owner.
He talks to McManus more or less every day. Sometimes it’s business – which horse might suit what race, who would be best to ride, etc. Most of the time, it’s just catching up. They were a partnership for 12 seasons and once he retired, the relationship remained intact. Neither would have it any other way.
“I go to the different yards to check on his horses and let him know how everything is going. I get to see them a lot, I get to see them exercise. And I still ride them. Because at the end of the day, I like riding horses. I didn’t become a jockey to win Gold Cups or Grand Nationals. I didn’t come from a racing family. I wasn’t born into it. I just got to like riding horses.
“I am very close to him. As much as anything else, we are good friends. I like being involved because he was very good to me for a long period of time and I know how much he does for the sport. I know he doesn’t like people saying that about him but he does. Jump racing has never had anyone like him. So I like to see his horses be successful.
“But for myself, first and foremost it’s great to have an active role. How lucky am I? I’m not an adrenaline junkie. I don’t need to be climbing mountains or jumping out of skyscrapers to get a thrill. That was never what horse racing was for me. It wasn’t about adrenaline. It was about winning.”
At latest count, McManus has an incredible 48 different horses entered at the festival. They won’t all go – some won’t get into the handicaps, others will be kept for other days. But it’s still the place they want winners above all else.
They are light enough on contenders in the championship races, although it wouldn’t shock anyone to see Champ – the horse named after McCoy – come and win a very open-looking Stayers’ Hurdle on Thursday. Chances are, they’ll gather up the usual few handicaps and they’ll be disappointed if there isn’t a good novice here and there.
“I think if I could pick one winner, I would love to see Jonbon win the Supreme,” McCoy says. “I would nearly have Jonbon win above any of the rest of them, to be honest. On paper, it looks like as good a Supreme Novice’s as we’ve had for a long time so if Jonbon could go and win it, then you’re looking at a huge future for him.
"If he could win that, then you're thinking about going and winning an Arkle with him, going winning Champion Chases. I know Constitution Hill is thought of as the bee's knees but I think Jonbon could be coming right at the right time.
“A horse like that keeps you going. You need a dream, don’t you? Anyone who hasn’t got a dream has nothing. You can be sure that the dream means more to JP than it does to anyone. I can tell you that, 100 per cent. Anyone that hasn’t got a dream has got nothing.”
The flag goes up on Tuesday. Until then, everyone can dream for free.
AP McCoy is an ambassador for Close Brothers & Albert Bartlett and will be co-presenting on ITV Racing at next week’s Cheltenham Festival.