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Plog 44 - 03/03/15:
AP McCoy And Overused Superlatives
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WITH so many moments to choose from over the last 20 years, it's difficult to… well, it's difficult to think of something original to put pretty much anywhere in these words on AP McCoy. Every superlative has been well overused, every big race-win has been recalled, every tribute has commented on what a top man he is as well as top jockey.
All perfectly correct, of course – indeed we didn’t need to be told that in the first place. With, at the time of writing, his last Cheltenham Festival, last Grand National and, ultimately, retirement approaching, many worthy tributes to the greatest jockey of all time – see, there I go with an overused superlative - have already been written and broadcast.
Racing UK’s recent tribute was enjoyable; however I was disappointed that, apart from one instance, the McCoy races they showed tended to be the big ones. Arguably, the very essence of what McCoy was all about was what you saw from him during the week at the gaff tracks. More Of That later, as well as a little speculation as to who will go on to ride him and a lot of JP McManus’ other horses in future.
Here I nominate my top three McCoy moments.
Shadow Dancer, Market Rasen, 27 September 2009
Shadow Dancer went on to be fairly useful, but on his hurdling debut at Market Rasen, he jumped as though he’d never seen a hurdle at home. Things looked decidedly bleak turning out of the back straight, but AP McCoy got after him on the home turn, and with six lengths to make up from two out, Shadow Dancer gradually closed on the leader under only a hand ride. Commentator Mark Johnson pretty much nailed the rest: “Shadow Dancer!... Up!... In time!”
Westender, Greatwood Handicap Hurdle at Cheltenham, 18 November 2001
Having expressed my disappointment at not seeing many McCoy best-rides from the small tracks on the RUK tribute piece, maybe it's hypocritical of me to put two Cheltenham races in my McCoy-top three – but at least the first of them seems to have been largely forgotten. Mind you, it was more than a decade ago.
On the final day of the Open meeting, AP rode a white-hot favourite in the competitive Greatwood Handicap Hurdle, the Martin Pipe-trained Westender, who went off 11/8 favourite. Coming to the last it was in the bag, only for Westender to blunder badly, and having been four to six lengths ahead of The French Furze turning in, suddenly it was no more than a length – and defeat was a realistic possibility. McCoy galvanised Westender, he stayed on strongly up the hill and won by two lengths.
Now why I recall this fondly is because of what happened immediately afterwards. The race-going public had ‘got’ what AP McCoy was all about by this time, and when the replay of the bad mistake Westender made was shown on the big screen, as one the Cheltenham crowd gasped, then applauded, in a kind-of unified appreciation.
The only person who shook his head in disappointment was McCoy himself, who if memory serves blamed himself for Westender’s error. But those events were a measure of the fan base he had even then. It must be a hundred times that now.
Synchronised, 2012 Cheltenham Gold Cup
For me, this captured a moment. With the early years of his career and accompanying whip bans well behind him, and very much established in his role as retained jockey to JP McManus, this was AP McCoy at the peak of his powers – not just physically but mentally.
We're used to seeing over-the-top celebrations by Cheltenham Festival-winning jockeys, but after he'd given Synchronised what we largely call a ‘typical AP ride’ (see below) to win the Gold Cup, there wasn't extended punching the air, flying dismounts, shouting – there were relaxed smiles in the post-race interviews, and explanative, eloquent answers to questions. As if it was just another race? Maybe a little bit.
But it showed that, after winning the biggest race at the Festival, here was a man who could, quite naturally, keep his feet on the ground and his head screwed on. Young talented sports stars take note.
Doing The Day Job
To see AP at his very best, you really needed to see him ride at humdrum weekday fixtures. In all raceable (and some unraceable) weathers, hundreds of times he pushed, shoved, cajoled, coerced, persuaded and hoodwinked animals that would be qualifiers for the title of ‘laziest horse to ever start favourite for a horse race’, into passing the winning post in first place. Horses like Synchronised, who didn't start favourite for the Gold Cup, but might as well have done.
That's why when the public speak of him, it's always to the effect of ‘McCoy always tries his best for the punters’.
National Hunt Racing Without McCoy
There are still a lot of very good jockeys out there, but compared to McCoy, none are the complete package. Tom Scudamore and Sam Twiston-Davies can push one for three miles, and are strong in a finish, and Paul Carberry has no peers when it comes to the classic hold-up lead-post sort of ride, or getting a non-stayer to stay a longer trip. The massively improved Barry Geraghty is arguably the best for the big occasion, but only McCoy has it all.
People have already put up their suggestions as to who will get the McManus-retainer. Geraghty has had a lot of success already in the green and gold silks – notably on Jezki and More Of That at the 2014 Cheltenham Festival - but he is in the second half of his career himself. Paul Townend, number two at Willie Mullins’ yard but already proven on many of the stable’s best horses, will surely wait for Ruby Walsh to call time on his own successful riding career. Time is catching up on Davy Russell too.
My personal choice would be Mark Walsh, unfortunately sidelined with a broken arm at the time of writing, who’s ridden for JP with increasing frequency in Ireland, enjoyed a few winners in the colours already if not big ones (yet), can galvanise a horse in a finish and has youth on his side. He'll be hungry for success when he comes back from his injury and is sure to get winners at the major festivals in years to come, whether he's riding for McManus or not.
Some jockeys may start to think ‘at last, a level playing field’ – that'll be pretty well any rider who’s ever thought ‘I've got this’ coming to the last, only to have McCoy nut them on the line.
That could also apply to any punter who’s backed something without McCoy in the saddle that's in the lead coming up the straight, and a McCoy-ridden horse, that was going badly and winning nothing a mile ago, gets up close home. For this punter, the defeat of Rydon Pynes by Upswing in a 3m handicap hurdle at Newbury in February 2014 is a fine example. My wager was looking rather good on the home turn. With two to jump I feared the worst. Halfway up the run-in, goodnight.
Three thousand, then four
Two other fondly-recalled McCoy memories are, of course,his 3,000- and 4,000-winner milestones. I can't make it to the racetrack as often as I'd like, but a combination of working graveyard shifts for many years – plus being a bad sleeper anyway – enabled me to see them on TV.
Conditions at Plumpton on 9th February 2009 weren't remotely raceable, but getting muddied and battered goes with the territory for jump jockeys, and McCoy rode novice chaser Restless D’Artaix through deep lakes to achieve his 3,000th winner. He'd have done it a race earlier but for coming down at the last on juvenile hurdler Miss Sarenne, but he did something else he's done hundreds of times – picked himself up, wiped the mud away and was ready to go again.
Whether or not the 3,000 winner-mark is equalled depends on the one and only jockey who's close to matching it, Richard Johnson, who is yet another rider in the latter stages of his career you’d think, but is understandably favourite to win the 2015/16 Jockeys Championship.
Johnson has ridden more than 2,700 jumps winners at the time of writing, and granted an injury-free run and plenty of rides coming his way – and he could be on for a few more when McCoy no longer occupies the number one-peg in the weighing room – the Johnson 3,000 is not impossible.
Fast forward to 7th November 2013. In the run-up to his 4,000th winner, life-sized cardboard cutout APs – like the one that was force-fed a burger in the Jockey Style video – appeared at every racecourse, with the number of winners he needed at the start of that day’s racing written on them.
Eventually it was to be Towcester, whose future in 2015 is greyhound racing and not horses, where he would achieve the milestone. Mountain Tunes, a point winner making his debut under Rules, looked beaten on the home turn in the novices’ hurdle and Jamie Moore on Kris Spin was in the ‘I’ve got this’ position going to the last, but McCoy’s winners have often come from further back than where Mountain Tunes was and, using that familiar blend of skill and strength, got Mountain Tunes in front halfway up the hill.
John Hunt’s stirring ‘What a man, what a jockey’ commentary added to the occasion. JP McManus was present, and said he'd buy everyone at the racecourse a drink – and if anyone on God’s earth is true to their word, it's him.
When I started watching racing, the household names were the Flat jockeys, Piggott, Carson, etc. That version of the sport still offers Frankie Dettori in 2015, but it's jumping that has given us the 2010 BBC Sports Personality Of The Year.
Illustrating again that it's impossible to escape the use of overused superlatives when describing AP McCoy, the one I choose to close this piece on is the one on which most, if not all, will agree: we won't see his like again.