Indestructible Tony McCoy will never see records broken

‘Idea of him indulging in something so human and mundane as retirement is hard to process’

Tony McCoy, seen here with the Champion Jump Jockey trophy at Sandown Racecourse, has announced he is to retire from racing at the end of the season. Photograph: Anthony Devlin/PA Wire

It is no surprise that Tony McCoy waited until reaching 200 winners for the season before announcing it will be his last campaign. Just as no jockey has ever set the records McCoy has set, no jockey has ever been as motivated by wanting to achieve those record-breaking targets.

When he announced after landing a 4,000th career success over 14 months ago that he wasn’t ruling out going for 5,000, no one scoffed at the idea of a man approaching 40 maintaining his legendary and remorseless pursuit of success for another five years in the most dangerous and demanding sport of all.

After two decades as British champion jockey, and redrawing the statistical and professional boundaries of his career, the man from Toomebridge in Co. Antrim has become such a benchmark figure that the idea of him indulging in something so human and mundane as retirement is hard to process.

Tony McCoy celebrates on Synchronised after winning the Betfred Cheltenham Gold Cup Steeple Chase at the 2012 Cheltenham Fesitval. Photograph: David Davies/PA Wire

There are younger race fans unaware of a racing scene without McCoy. When he was first crowned champion jockey in 1996, Clinton was in the White House. Yeltsin was in charge of Russia. Since then the thin, austere figure has carved out a singular place in sporting history, on the back of skill, courage, but perhaps most of all, raw willpower.


McCoy has conceded he is addicted to winning. He has also admitted to being driven by fear, a fear of not doing the job properly, or not doing it was well as he once did, maybe most of all a fear of failure.

Not possessed of the silky horsemanship of a John Francome or a Ruby Walsh, McCoy's career has been fundamentally based on that fear combining with a ferocious will to win to produce an almost elemental force in the saddle.

Nobody has ever managed to transmit their will to a horse better than McCoy.

The numbers of apparent lost causes retrieved by that raging figure coiled on top is endless but maybe Wichita Lineman's Cheltenham Festival success in 2009 can be shown across the sporting spectrum as an example of raw perseverance.

A somewhat stern public persona has complemented a legend of monastic dedication, whether in terms of a never-ending struggle to keep weight in check or a pain-threshold that has seen him ride winners despite broken ribs. Those that know McCoy, though, insist there is a much more light-hearted private figure, teetotal but able to let his hair down too.

But there has never been any doubt that the most important thing for McCoy has always been the next race, the next target, the next record to be broken.

He has always maintained that his 2002 tally of winners – 289 – was his finest achievement, beating the legendary Gordon Richards’s 1947-total of 269.

That had come on the flat. The idea of a jump jockey breaking it had been ludicrous. Jump jockeys hit the ground on average once every 20 rides. Injury is inevitable, not possible.

But McCoy wondered at the time if 300 in a season might be on sometime in the future. He was still thinking that this season when only injury got in the way of that ambition.

The reality is that there aren’t any more records to be broken. No jump jockey has been more successful. No jump jockey is ever likely to be as successful. And no jockey has less to prove to anyone, least of all himself, than McCoy.

As a teenage apprentice at Jim Bolger’s stables in Co. Carlow, McCoy broke his leg in a fall and when he returned to work had grown too heavy to pursue a career on the flat. He informed the famously stern Bolger he was leaving to become a jump jockey and the trainer delivered one of racing’s most famously off-beam predictions.

“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,” McCoy later recalled Bolger saying. Two years later he was champion jockey.

That addiction to winning, to proving to himself and everyone else that if the horse is good enough he is too, has fuelled McCoy throughout his career and could seem very ascetic sometimes, so much so that his decision to retire at the end of the season in 11 weeks time caught many on the hop.

His family say he has wrestled with the idea of retirement for a number of weeks but didn’t say anything because, naturally, that 200 target had to be reached first. A 20th jockeys title is already assured. What will consume so many now is a desire for McCoy to reach the finish line at Sandown in April in one piece.

When potential disaster is just the next fence away, the old advice for jockeys contemplating giving up was to give up immediately. Throwing a thoroughbred at a fence at 35 miles per hour demands complete commitment: going at it half-heartedly has a nasty habit of winding up in disaster.

McCoy though insists it will be business as usual for the next 11 weeks. And you believe him. The crown jewels of Cheltenham and Aintree and Punchestown are just in store but McCoy still plans to be at lowly Fakenham this Friday. Since that will be the next race, going there is completely logical to him.

Ultimately his next real test could come when there is no next race and he has to settle for the humdrum existence of the everyday and everyone. For such a unique individual, that will be new, maybe even daunting.

But nobody will deserve retirement more, and everyone will fervently hope he gets to tackle its challenges in one piece.

Brian O'Connor

Brian O'Connor

Brian O'Connor is the racing correspondent of The Irish Times. He also writes the Tipping Point column