“It’s a terrible way of describing it but I’ve been like a drug addict this week,” Tony McCoy says on a quiet morning at home. In a beautiful house on the outskirts of Lambourn, a village tucked away in the Valley of the Racehorse, McCoy compares the conclusion of his riveting career, which finally ends on Saturday at Sandown, with using methadone as a replacement for heroin.
“That’s how it feels,” he says of his decision to have one last big fix of racing, rather than riding every day this week. “I’m trying to wean myself off it and accept that I’m not a jockey any more. But I don’t really know how I am going to cope when it’s all over.”
McCoy lives in a stylish home with a view of the Berkshire countryside that stretches for miles on a gorgeous morning. The perennial champion jockey looks just a tad less rough than me so it's safe to assume that the chic decor is inspired by his wife, Chanelle. But she has made a proud concession to his racing majesty and McCoy and I sit alongside a cabinet crammed with his championship trophies and the silver plates a jockey receives for winning the Gold Cup, the Grand National, the Champion Hurdle, the King George and every other great horserace in Britain and Ireland.
Is Chanelle worried about him and how he might survive without the addiction of winning races? “She is concerned,” McCoy says. “I am concerned as to what I am going to do, let alone Chanelle. The adrenaline rush, the buzz, the drive is not going to be there. What can replace that? Nothing. So it’s about trying to structure your life the best you can. But I’m going from being champion jockey for the 20th time in a row to being just another retired jockey.”
I know McCoy well enough to say he will remain a son, a husband and a father. He has told me often enough, with raw immediacy, how much each of those roles matter to him.
“Yeah ? but it’s just gone,” he says, pointing out that the central pillar of his life is about to disappear. “The hard part will come in two months when I haven’t had any buzz all that time and you start feeling sorry for yourself, thinking: ‘Why did it all go so quick?”
McCoy looks up and speaks a simple truth. “As the fella says, time is the enemy of every sportsperson. It always catches up with you and it’s having the bottle to go before then. But it’s hard when you still love it and you’re lucky enough to be successful. It would be so much easier if that was not the case. I still think if I was to change my name I could compete at this level for another three or four years. But it’s about being brave enough to go before the dip.”
It seems telling that, considering McCoy’s domination of jump racing for 20 years, we spend more time talking about his pursuit of an unprecedented 300 winners this season than anything else. Until devastating injuries cut him down in October it had seemed as if McCoy was racing towards a sporting miracle.
“That broke my heart, really,” he says of the realisation he would not be able to reach his holy grail of 300 winners in a season. “It was the first time ever as a jockey that I felt broken. Yeah, I’ve broken every fucking bone in my body but bones heal. This was feeling broken inside. It absolutely broke my heart because, until then, I really thought it was on.
“I was riding out of my skin because I felt the hunger. I felt the need. I felt the obsession. It was always in my head but when I rode my fastest 100th winner in August the 300 became real. I always need that huge challenge. And when I got injured the goal was gone.”
Trouble started with a bad fall at Worcester in early October. "I punctured my lung, broke a couple of ribs and dislocated my collarbone," McCoy says as he recites a bleak summary of damage. His fellow jockey, Dougie Costello, remembers McCoy walking back into the weighing room, talking about riding on while he had a drip in his hand. McCoy's pale face looked ghostly as he asked for a cup of tea - with 10 sugars.
“Yeah, that was because I punctured my lung and couldn’t breathe. I obviously know the symptoms of a punctured lung. You know what it’s like not to be able to get a breath. I wouldn’t go to hospital because I knew a doctor would tell me I had punctured my lung and dislocated my collarbone and broke my ribs.
“I took a few days off and I kept saying to Chanelle, ‘I am getting better. I am.’ But Doc Pritchard made me go to the hospital because my lung was not great but when I got it inflated again I went back racing three or four days later at Huntingdon. I rode three winners that day. The pain was unbelievable but I went to Wetherby the next day and properly dislocated my collar bone. I had a week off but I went back riding way too early - at Exeter.”
McCoy shakes his head at his folly in driving himself too hard, too soon, before falling again amid the destruction of his last great racing dream. “I didn’t believe I could miss another day while chasing that record. I had it in my head that I could not afford to have one more hour off, let alone one more day. Chanelle knew I was absolutely fucked in the head. She knew no one could talk to me.
A lond depression
“The shoulder swelled up massively at Exeter. So did the front of my chest where my ribs and collarbone had been broken. I still went out and rode the next race - purely out of temper. I even went racing the next day and had a couple of rides but my head was gone. I had a ride in the first race and one in the last race and I rang the doctor in-between and said: ‘I’m going to have to come see you.’ He told me that I had not only dislocated my collarbone but broken it as well. He basically said: ‘You’re fucked.’”
It marked the start of a long depression for McCoy. "The 300 target was over but it didn't help that I was already 70 ahead in the jockeys' championship. I had ridden 150 winners in October and no disrespect to the lads but [his closest rivals] Tom Scudamore and Richard Johnson are on 145 and 146 now in the last week of April. So my biggest problem mentally when the 300 went was I already knew I was going to be champion jockey again. Where's the drive there?"
McCoy sinks back in his chair. The house seems painfully hushed before he continues. “That was the moment of failure. It felt as if everything had been taken away.”
Was that also the moment when McCoy decided to retire? “No - even though I had thought about it at the start of the season. There were times when I was just flying and I also thought: ‘You know what, it would be an amazing way to retire - riding 300 winners.’ But when it fell apart I wasn’t thinking about retiring. My mind was on other things which were just not good.
“After two a half weeks I was thinking: ‘What’s the point? What can I achieve now? Nothing.’ I was very bitter. I had no goals. I had nothing to motivate myself. I was mad at myself for falling and getting injured. I was thinking: ‘Why didn’t it happen last year or the year before?’ It seemed such a waste.”
Did anything help him comes to terms with such disappointment? “No. I never came to terms with it. I still haven’t. I’m still very bitter.”
McCoy laughs as his way of softening that last sentence but he keeps talking with fierce intent. “I actually did think I was going to do it. I was a month ahead of schedule. I have a picture out there [he gestures to the passage] that’s got all the 289 winners I rode when I broke Sir Gordon Richards’ record in 2002. It lists every day I got a winner. I’m looking at it every morning, thinking, ‘Fuck me. I’m nearly a month ahead of it.’ I was flying.
"When it ended was the darkest time in terms of personal achievement for me. But the darkest time of all was far worse. It was when Richard Davis [McCoy's friend and then fellow conditional jockey] got killed [IN 1996]. When Kieren Kelly got injured and died [IN 2003]. And I will never forget John Thomas McNamara [McCoy's friend who has been left paralysed after falling at Cheltenham in 2013]. I stood in the weighing room looking at the silks hanging on his peg. I knew. He's never going to wear them again. Those were the darkest moments but in terms of personal achievement losing the 300 mashed what little brains I do have."
The doorbell rings. A friend of Chanelle’s has arrived to pick up a cushion. McCoy is unfailingly polite but he has no idea, at first, how to help. He seems briefly haunted before, adjusting to the changed pattern of his life, he hunts for the cushion. He eventually finds it and sends off Chanelle’s friend with a cheery wave.
McCoy grimaces at the suggestion he could have been riding a few winners at Exeter rather than searching for a cushion. “Yeah ? but that’s gone.”
This month a different story suggested victory for McCoy in the Grand National on Shutthefrontdoor would seal the most triumphant ending. “For a long way I thought it was going to win,” McCoy says of his horse. “I had that buzz. But the 300 meant much more to me. Obviously a second National would have been great [to match his victory on Don’t Push It in 2010] but lots of jockeys win the National. No jockey has won 300 races.
"John Randall at the Racing Post emailed Gee Armytage [McCoy's assistant and a former jockey] a couple of weeks later saying, 'If it's of any comfort he rode 307 winners from January to January .' So I did ride 307 winners in 365 days."
Was he consoled by that fact? “A little,” McCoy says before he grins again. “But then it made me madder still. 300 in a season really had been possible.”
He seems to take solace from a reminder that, in our recent interview, Kieren Fallon, the former champion on the flat, picked out McCoy’s ride on Wichita Lineman at the Cheltenham Festival as the greatest he had ever seen. Fallon told me that no jockey, either on the Flat or over jumps, could match McCoy’s achievement in the 2009 William Hill Trophy when he willed a brave but limited horse to victory.
“It’s very nice when you hear someone like Kieren Fallon say that - knowing how brilliant Kieren had been. That’s my biggest accolade. It was probably the best ride I ever gave a horse but Wichita Lineman didn’t get enough credit. No matter how good you are you need the horse to want to win. He made me look good that day. He was as good as I was.
“Pridwell was another. He was not really a quality horse but he beat the best hurdler of the time in Istabraq [in the Martell Aintree Hurdle in 1998]. That gave me so much pride because he should never beat Istabraq. People always say I was physically very strong on that horse but, tactically, it was one of my best rides ever.”
Will he be able to enjoy his farewell at Sandown? “It will be a bit emotional, that’s for sure. Am I going to enjoy it? I honestly don’t know. It’s not been easy deciding which races I will ride in and what would be the best way to do it. I feel I should end in the colours of JP [McManus who has employed McCoy as his principal jockey since 2004] but we’ll see.”
Those he loves most, his family, are mightily relieved McCoy will slip off a racing saddle for the last time. He recites his more obvious injuries with deadpan nonchalance. “I’ve broken my ankle, my leg, my arm, my wrist, my lower vertebrae, my middle vertebrae, all my ribs, punctured my lung loads of times, fractured my sternum, broken my collarbones, shoulder blades, cheekbones. All my teeth have been broken.
“So for my mum and dad, especially, and Chanelle, it’s just as well I’m stopping. My mum and dad are in their seventies. My dad has been obsessed with racing a very long time - and he got me into it. But in the last year or two he’s not enjoyed it as much - because of his concern for me. So at least he will be able to live the rest of his life a little happier.”
Would the 40 year-old McCoy have kept riding if he was single rather than a husband to Chanelle and a dad to Eve and Archie? “I honestly don’t know. But my head keeps telling it’s the right thing to do because I always wanted to retire as a champion. It’s been my greatest fear every day of my life ? that I might not be champion jockey. Chanelle is very supportive and brilliant and she knows I am much too stubborn to let anyone influence me.
“But it’s going to be very strange. Your regime has been the same for 20 years. You get up in the morning and go for a run or sit in a hot bath for an hour to boil the weight down. Maybe have a cup of tea. Some mornings you allow yourself a slice of toast, some mornings you don’t. Spend four hours in the car to Carlisle. Come back and maybe not eat that night because you have to be light the next day. On a Saturday night you go out with Chanelle but you leave her to go home at half-ten and she’s off with her mates.”
McCoy looks bewildered. “I went out last Saturday night in London because it was Chanelle’s friend’s 40th birthday party. I was out until three in the morning and I was thinking, ‘F**ck, I can’t remember the last time I did this.’”
Did he enjoy himself? “I don’t know. It must have been all right because I stayed out that late. But how do people do this? – not worrying about having to get up in the morning?”
We kick around and then reject the idea McCoy might see a psychiatrist like Steve Peters to help him rationalise his changed life. He bursts out laughing when reminded of a line in Roy Keane's book. Keane said he was interested in reading Peters' The Chimp Paradox but that his chimp would not allow him to buy a copy.
“I can see where he’s coming from,” McCoy says of Keane. “I went to see a sports psychologist when I was younger because I thought it would help me get more winners. But after a few times I thought: ‘Is this helping me get better, stronger? Naah?’ It wasn’t a case of me dissing the sports psychology theory because it clearly helps people. If Ronnie O’Sullivan, the most talented snooker player that ever lived, is helped by Steve then it obviously works.
"I have actually read articles about the Chimp Paradox and the three parts of the brain it controls but I would be like Roy Keane in knowing what my f**king job is. My job is to beat every f**ker out there. So I'm a bit like Keane in being too thick and stubborn to want to talk about the chimp.
“I really like Roy Keane. He seems as mad as I am. I find him amusing as a pundit. I love it when someone says such-and-such had a good game. And Keane says: ‘That’s his job. He’s supposed to have a good game’.”
McCoy cackles in delight. “He’s right. That footballer’s getting paid 200 f**cking grand a week – what’s he supposed to do? He’s meant to run faster than the fella besides him.”
The jockey can’t stop laughing now. “Jesus, that’s mad. I can see a lot of similarities between me and Roy Keane.”
McCoy rolls his eyes when I say we await a Keane-style beard in retirement. But, more seriously, how is he going to fill his days from next week onwards? "I honestly don't know," he says before downplaying rumours he might work for JP McManus or, less likely, train horses on the Flat. "I'll always be close friends with JP and be interested in his horses but I have no idea what I'm going to do. Training is not an option. I'd never do jumps training and on the Flat I wouldn't want to be just another trainer. If you want to be dominant as a trainer you have to have the patronage of John Magnier or Sheikh Mohammed. So it's not going to happen."
The only certainly is there will be no comeback from McCoy. “Stubbornness made me retire and stubbornness will stop any comeback. There is absolutely no hope in the world that I would ever make a comeback.”
We amble outside and McCoy goes in search of his little boy, Archie. After two hours of bruising reflection he seems serene as he scoops up his son. McCoy asks Archie to make the sound of a galloping horse. The toddler, however, points to a more fascinating sight.
“A tractor?” McCoy grins, sounding like a dad rather than just an old jockey, “now we’re talking. Should we go take a look? We’ve got plenty of time to see the tractor.”
McCoy glances at me and smiles a little smile. He stretches out his hand to say goodbye. When I look back it feels strangely reassuring to see McCoy still carrying Archie, making the sound of a tractor for his chattering son. He lifts his hand again in a wave and it's suddenly obvious. The mark of a champion will never leave him. Guardian Service