Tony McCoy’s biggest challenge will be dealing with lost obsession
Everyone likes to win and most people want to win – but the legendary jockey needed it
Tony McCoy is overcome with emotion after coming third on Box Office at Sandown Park Racecourse in the final race of his career. Photograph: Sean Dempsey/AFP/Getty Images
A quick last story about Tony McCoy as he tumbles headlong into a future of timing himself to see how quick he can get to the shops and back. The 2001 Grand National was a high-carnage mud bath run on a miserable day in Aintree. A huge pile-up at the Canal Turn on the first circuit wiped out half the field and left a herd of loose horses to spend the rest of the race getting in the way of the other half.
One such free-spirited Pegasus managed to take out both McCoy and Ruby Walsh at the same ditch, at a point in the race they were on two of only five horses left standing. As Walsh dragged himself up out of the ditch and spat out the mouthful of twigs he’d got for his troubles, he found McCoy staring off into the distance as another one fell at the next. Realising that only two horses remained in the race, they decided to go again.
This was before remounting was banned in British horse-racing, although it was frowned upon. Regardless, the two lads ran back up the track about half a furlong to find their horses standing side by side. The race was already a mess and they were taking a bit of a chance here that could easily earn them a stern talking to when they got back.
The key, Walsh reckoned, was solidarity. A united front. They wouldn’t race each other home, they’d just hunt the two horses to the finish line. They were full minutes back down the track from the winner Red Marauder. There was nothing to race for. Not for him anyway.
Couldn’t help himself
Watching McCoy at Sandown on Saturday was heart-breaking at times. Through all the interviews and TV packages and rictus selfies over the past two months, the most clearly evident thing about McCoy is that he doesn’t want to do this.
He’s not quite retiring against his will but it’s obvious that he’s having to quell every last natural instinct in his body to make himself walk away.
Slim percentile For all the battering McCoy’s body has taken over the years, his mind has always been the most interesting thing about him. Everybody likes to win. Most people want to win. There’s a slim percentile right at the top containing those who need to win. And then there’s the very occasional McCoy, who has to win.
But why? It’s something he’s never really properly explained and there’s a very good chance that he doesn’t know the answer himself.
Repeatedly over the last couple of months, he has joked that if he could change his name and be somebody else he’d happily keep riding for another few years. But he can’t turn up for work as AP McCoy, former champion jockey.
Can’t do it. He’s not retiring to avoid injury. He’s not retiring because he’s not the best around. He’s retiring because one day he won’t be champion and the prospect of not getting to choose that day himself is too grim for him to bear.
Prize money is paltry
From May to September last year, he rode in 364 races – a full 125 more than Dicky Johnson. He rode in the afternoons and again in the evenings, organising a helicopter to take him between racecourses when he had to. It meant that facing into the winter, he led Johnson by 116 to 50. That 116, by the by, was more than all but three other jockeys would manage for whole season.
Again, though – why? On The Morning Line on Saturday, McCoy talked about this idea of racking up numbers and the effect it had on him. “I felt like I was better when I was chasing something all the time. It was easy to become obsessed with it. There was never any opportunity to not think like that.”
That last sentence reads like a negative but the way he said it left no doubt that he meant it as a positive. He welcomed not having that opportunity to be less than obsessed. It was like he nearly didn’t trust himself to be any good, as though he needed the higher power of the numbers to take the choice of being anything less out of his hands.
Tony McCoy had to win and now he will never win again. Fearless and all as he is, the prospect must scare the life out of him.