The world’s greatest jockey talks to Tim Williams about broken bones, fatalities and private helicopters
It was lucky I interviewed him in the morning, since that afternoon AP McCoy was ambulanced to hospital with broken ribs after getting kicked by his horse and missing the final of his four rides of the day at Taunton.
Some people would question why he was even in Somerset that day. McCoy has ridden 3000 horses to victory, been named BBC Sports Personality of the Year, and is regarded by many as one of the greatest sportspeople of all time; what is he doing in the bitter cold and rain at a minor race meeting, just two days after riding in Ireland?
“I wonder that myself here sometimes,” he jokes. “No, I’m very lucky that I enjoy what I do, so the self-motivation comes from that.”
He may be in the public eye more often than he used to be, “but my attitude and perception to it hasn’t changed and it’s the same now for me as when I started riding. Just because I’ve been lucky enough to win a lot and win a lot of things, I don’t think it’s any different.”
Anthony Peter McCoy, better known throughout his sport as Tony, AP or ‘the Champ’ grew up in Northern Ireland and rode his first winner aged 17. After moving to the mainland he took just two years to become Champion Jump Jockey (the rider of most winners in a year over obstacles) and has remained so in all of the 16 years since, winning every major race there is to win – a set finally completed by his victory in the 2010 Grand National.
His success is all the more remarkable because he has often missed months of a year through injury yet still rides more winners than anyone else. He says there is no secret to his success, just sheer hard work and talent: “It’s kind of self-taught. When I started off riding I looked at the people who were at the top. You try and learn from them and hopefully get to a stage where you can do things as well as they did.” His earliest employer, trainer Jim Bolger, was a “perfectionist who always made sure you did things the right way”.
“Sometimes I go racing and only ride one horse. I could get other rides but I don’t want to be going out on a horse in the mindset that it doesn’t really have a chance of winning because I think when you go out in that mindset it’s very hard to get out of it. I want to go out with the mindset that every horse I’m riding has a realistic chance of winning.”
McCoy maintains that if he were not Champion jockey he would immediately retire – a claim that has never been tested. So the reason he’s here at Taunton is because he could win today. It doesn’t quite turn out that way – beaten twice and then put out of action for a month with broken ribs.
Doesn’t he get nervous? Probably helpfully, he has managed to exclude the thought of serious injury from his mind: “I don’t actually feel, in a silly kind of way, that there are risks. If whatever’s going to happen to me is going to happen to me, then that’s just the way it is. As a jump jockey you can’t expect not to end up in the back of an ambulance and some days it’s going to be worse than others.”
Just studying his face tells a story. His previously-broken cheekbones are nearly non-existent and sink below his eyes, above the left one of which is a bruise – “I got a kick the other day” – which recently caused a stir on Twitter when he presented an award at the BBC’s Sports Personality of the Year.
The previous year at the awards gala, his courage and success were rewarded as he was recognised alongside David Beckham and Steve Redgrave as a British sporting legend. Yet he still appears slightly star struck and is extremely dismissive when I suggest he’s in the same category as Tiger Woods and Roger Federer – winners who have dominated their discipline for a long time.
“It was a fantastic and very prestigious award to be able to receive but I don’t even feel as though I’m any different or any better than the other people that I work with or work for.
“As far as I’m concerned, I go out on a few favourites at Taunton and the people of Taunton won’t give a hoot if I’m Sports Personality of the Year or not if I don’t win anything, that’s basically the long and short of it. It’s not about what’s in the past. Everyone wants to win today, they don’t care about who won yesterday.”
The past year has been a turbulent one for horseracing, which sits as the second most-watched sport in the UK. McCoy’s Sports Personality win brought more sought-after attention for the sport but it also highlighted sensitive issues. The Grand National in April, in which McCoy finished third, was followed by a PR crisis where complaints flooded in about the use of the whip and horse fatalities, creating front page headlines to which the governing authorities initially struggled to respond.
Fatalities are racing’s toughest topic. “It’s not nice. The more you can try and distance yourself from it the better but it’s the worst part of the job. It’s like every walk of life, there will always be accidents and fatalities no matter what you’re involved in. It is a dangerous sport and it happens but you have to deal with it and move on, you can’t dwell on things.”
The British Horseracing Authority (BHA) did eventually respond in October with new rules on the whip, which included much more strict rules and harsher penalties. It is widely accepted that, when used correctly, the cushioned whip, designed with help from the RSPCA, is harmless and at times needed for safety. Many jockeys were frustrated by the changes, feeling they were being fined and suspended just to placate an uneducated public.
In an astonishing few days, the prospect of jockeys going on strike put racing in the news again for the wrong reasons.
“I think the main reason was the severity of the penalties for breaking rules which were just brought in overnight. You were trying to change how experienced jockeys have ridden over the years and there were very experienced jockeys, who had never had a whip ban in their life, and now suddenly were getting them.”
The strike was narrowly averted and gradually the rules are being accepted. Their big challenge will come in March’s Cheltenham Festival, the Olympics of horse racing, where jockeys will be trying their utmost to win.
“If you ask us would you rather win the Grand National or rather win at Cheltenham then most of us would rather win at Cheltenham. The Grand National [held in Liverpool] is only the biggest spectacle as far as horseracing is concerned for the reasons that the people who don’t really have an interest in the sport watch it on that one day.”
McCoy’s lifestyle is bizarre to say the least. When I push him on what he’ll eat today he tells me that, because he doesn’t need to get down to a low weight (the lowest he’s due to ride at today, including his miniature saddle, is 11st 2lbs), he can treat himself to a proper meal. So far he seems pretty chuffed to have had a piece of toast and two cups of tea. When he’s getting down to ride 10st he sometimes survives off a lettuce and diet coke.
“I think it’s like anything. You’re body gets used to it. It’s basically the way I’ve been trained to live if you like. When you can have days where you can actually eat something nice you should do because it’s not meant to be possible to actually stick to a strict diet forever – your head can’t cope with it and you end up depressed.”
When I see him, his five most recent race days have been London, Ireland, Ireland, Yorkshire and Somerset consecutively. There is no summer break in racing – his rest only comes when he’s injured or suspended.
His life is slightly more stable, however, now that he has daughter Eve and wife Chanelle to go back to every night.
“Having a daughter has made my job easier because there were times in the past that if I had bad days I wouldn’t be the easiest person to live with and I would dwell on it for the night until I had another go the next day.”
As a young rider, he had always planned to retire from riding aged 35. “That went out the window,” he laughs. “I just thought that was a good number and a good idea but it would be a lot easier to stop if I didn’t enjoy what I do.”
Now 37, he believes he’ll definitely finish within five years. “I won’t be riding when I’m 42, not when I’m that old.”
What does someone who has lived the dream, and suffered the diet and constant self-torture to make it, do when they suddenly stop?
Immediately he has an answer, which shows off his quiet sense of humour: “Literally, when I’ve finished riding I’m going to play golf for six months. That’s what I’m gonna do, have lots of sunny holidays for about six months and see what happens then.”
After that? “Do you know what, I’ve actually never thought about it. Obviously I love racing but I love sport in general so who knows, I couldn’t just walk away from racing and do something else. I don’t know what I’m gonna do but I won’t be training racehorses, that’s for sure.”
In an era of pampered sports stars demanding higher wages to play play fewer games and feigning injuries, McCoy is the ultimate reassurance that there are successful people out there who do what they do because they love it; he wants to ride as much as he possibly can and, as soon as he can’t, struggles like mad to do so again.
A couple hours after I speak to him, he is kicked into the muddy turf, receiving three broken ribs which doctors later tell him will put him out of action for a month.
In a scene which sums him up entirely he resists the help of a stretcher, gingerly picks himself up and, breathing in a whiff of oxygen, walks into the ambulance.
Later that night he tweeted: “Broke a few ribs so not 2 bad and hopefully back 2 work very soon just need the doctor 2 let me out of the hospital now and I’ll be happy.”
When I first met him that day he’d humbly joked, “you’ve got to do a good job telling lies about me”. But when you hear about McCoy, the truth is sometimes hard to believe.