Tony McCoy’s seminal career is the product of a unique individual, so unique there appears to be little concern in racing that his decision to retire towards the end of this season might tempt the fates governing the most dangerous job in sport: the man who has long-since smashed every racing record to smithereens remains simply different.
The Gold-Cup-and-Champion-Hurdle-winning jockey Conor O’Dwyer stretched his riding career to 42 before retiring in 2008 and doesn’t see any of the normal ominous warning-signs that McCoy’s legendary drive might be waning.
In a job where total-commitment is required to counter the reality that disaster always lurks just a fence away – and jockeys hit the ground once every 20 rides – any diluting of “bottle” can have disastrous consequences. Convention says once retirement thoughts enter a rider’s head, it’s time to go.
“I know once I decided to go I was gone but ‘AP’ is different to everyone else,” O’Dwyer said.
“You can usually see the warning signs, fellas starting to pick and choose more: but I look at ‘AP’ now and he’s riding the same as he was five years ago.
“He’s still going to Newton Abbot and Plumpton on a Monday for two rides. He’ll be riding the exact same for the next 2½ months. In fact before he announced he would be retiring, I thought he could keep going for another five years.”
O’Dwyer wasn’t alone in thinking that. When McCoy 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.
The last two decades has seen the man from Toomebridge, Co Antrim redraw the statistical and professional boundaries of his sport, and become such a benchmark figure, that the idea of him indulging in something so mundane as retirement was initially hard to credit. He has always been indifferent to convention.
Addicted to winning, McCoy has also admitted to being driven by fear, a fear of not doing the job properly, or not doing it as 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, his 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 forever 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.
However, 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, proving himself.
As a teenage apprentice at Jim Bolger’s stables in Co
, 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 he could seem very ascetic sometimes.
Now that he is facing into a Brian O’Driscoll-type long-farewell, McCoy insists it will be business as usual. And you believe him. Cheltenham is just a month away. But Fakenham is on this Friday and McCoy plans to be there too. He has long known the most important race is the next one.
Ultimately, his 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 no one will deserve retirement more, and everyone fervently hopes he gets to tackle its challenges in one piece.