Legends of the sport: 20-time champion jockey AP McCoy *H&H Plus*

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  • As record-breaking careers go, few compare to that of 20-time champion jockey AP McCoy. From Grand National glory to knighthood, Hannah Lemieux charts his astonishing career

    “Even in retirement, I still think about my failures and the races I didn’t win, more than I think about my achievements,” muses the 20-time consecutive champion jockey and all-time great Sir AP McCoy.

    Many of us would find it unbelievable that the Northern Irishman cannot now sit back on his laurels and enjoy his accomplishments in the saddle, five years after retiring. Becoming the first jump jockey to ride to 4,000 victories, breaking Sir Gordon Richards’ record for most wins ridden in a season, two Gold Cups, a Grand National, a BBC Sports Personality of the Year crown, an OBE and a knighthood to top off a career that was successful at a meteoric level.

    It is unlikely we’ll witness another AP McCoy during our lifetimes. However, it is his astonishing mindset that no doubt made him the untouchable champion he was for two decades.

    “I went through a stint of seeing a sport psychologist, but it didn’t work out for me – I just ended up thinking my therapist needed help,” quips AP.

    “I thought I needed a way to feel better after a bad day’s racing, but then I realised I didn’t want to feel OK about a bad ride – I wanted to feel crap so it would drive me to push myself further and further.

    “I was never satisfied with what I was achieving, I always wanted more. But ultimately, I enjoyed the torture and pressure I put myself under. I had to have goals to drive towards and push myself out of my comfort zone.”

    He adds: “As a young jockey, you have to watch and learn from whomever is the best and most successful – analyse what makes them better and find a way of beating them. They are at the top for a reason.

    “When I started out, Richard Dunwoody was champion and I wanted to be good enough to compete with him and then find that extra edge to beat him. If you don’t want to be champion in your respective sport, you shouldn’t be doing it.”

    His first win

    Rewind back to March 1992 and a fresh-faced, 17-year-old Anthony Peter McCoy claimed the first win of his career on the Jim Bolger-trained Legal Steps in a Flat race at Thurles in Ireland.

    AP credits the Irish trainer for kick-starting his career, albeit as a Flat jockey.

    “I started out as an apprentice for Jim and I stayed there for four and a half years. I wasn’t very successful, but he taught me a lot – he was a perfectionist and always expected the best,” he reflects.

    When weight went against AP, who is 5ft 10in, he switched codes to the National Hunt game and moved across the Irish Sea, basing himself with racing royalty in the form of late trainer Toby Balding.

    In his first season riding in this country, AP topped the champion conditional jockey leaderboard. The following season, having ridden out his claim, he bagged his first champion jockey title at the end of the 1995/96 season and went on to retain his crown every year until his retirement in 2015.

    He was soon attracting the eyes of big trainers and in 1997 he joined forces with “genius” trainer Martin Pipe, who was the first handler to use both interval training to get his horses fit and a lab at his yard to test equine bloods.

    “I was never actually officially Martin’s stable jockey, but I remained riding for him for seven and a half years and notched up over 1,000 winners for the yard,” says the 45-year-old.

    “Martin was a pure genius, he was so far ahead of his time. He trained his horses like human athletes, taking inspiration from Czech long-distance runner Emil Zátopek – he focused so much on the horses’ health and fitness.

    “I learnt a lot from Martin, he turned me into a machine. He had the mentality that sport wasn’t about just taking part; it was about winning and being the best.”

    With horsepower courtesy of late owner David Johnson – including Arkle winner Well Chief and top chaser Cyfor Malta – Martin and AP, in David’s famous blue and green silks, were a dominant force for many years.

    A new challenge

    In 2004, AP felt ready for a new challenge and he accepted the offer to be the retained jockey for top owner JP McManus, which enabled him to ride more for trainer Jonjo O’Neill.

    “I just had a gut feeling that it was the right thing to do at that point of my career; my main focus was still to remain the champion jockey,” reflects AP. “I cried when I told Martin I was leaving because riding for him changed my life. Aside from my agent, Dave Roberts, who got me on to so many great horses, Martin was the person who helped me break so many records during my career.

    “Riding for JP was a very different job and I was riding much more in Ireland, but leaving Martin had been a decision I made entirely on my own – I told no one.”

    It was on one of JP’s horses, Don’t Push It, that the “Champ” won the Grand National in 2010, a race that had previously eluded him.

    “Whenever I was away on holiday, people would always ask me if I’d won the Grand National and I could never say ‘yes’, so it was nice to tick that one off the list before I retired; it probably would have annoyed me otherwise,” he admits. “However, I wouldn’t have lost sleep about it – there are many great jockeys who retired without winning a National.”

    AP also won two Cheltenham Gold Cups 15 years apart, first on Mr Mulligan in 1997 and then on Synchronised for JP McManus in 2012.

    Amid the dazzling silver cups and bulging trophy cabinets, AP recounts his greatest achievement in the saddle was reaching 4,000 career wins in 2013, a record held by legendary Flat jockey Gordon Richards for 55 years. He became the first ever jump jockey to do so, and the unprecedented milestone came at Towcester aboard a horse called Mountain Tunes.

    At that point, AP had already rewritten the history books in 2002 when breaking Gordon’s record of 269 winners in a season – on a horse trained by Martin Pipe called Valfonic at Warwick. “Another day I will never forget,” he reflects.

    Hanging up his boots

    During a career spanning two decades, AP has endured countless injuries and broken bones, including both collarbones, shoulder blades, lower and middle vertebrae, ribs, cheekbones, a leg, ankle, arm, wrist, punctured lungs, chipped teeth and a dislocated thumb. On the flip side, he has ridden some of the best quality horses in the sport.

    “Many of the best I rode were actually catch rides when I was deputising for other jockeys,” he reflects, “such as winning the Melling Chase on Viking Flagship in 1996, the King George VI Chase in 2002 on Best Mate and I rode Master Minded twice when Ruby Walsh was injured and won the 2008 Tingle Creek Chase on him.”

    Having ridden a record 4,358 winners, AP retired in 2015. He dramatically announced hanging up his boots live on Channel 4 Racing to a stunned Rishi Persad, while being interviewed after winning at Newbury on Mr Mole – his 200th win of that season.

    “Retiring was tough,” he muses. “But I accepted straight away that my riding career was over. I had made the decision five years previously that I would retire when I did. I knew once I hit 40, I wouldn’t be riding for much longer and I wanted to go out at the top.

    “As much as I’d have loved to carry on doing it, you have to be a realist. I didn’t want to be a sports person that carried on too long and for people to think that I wasn’t as good as I once was.”

    AP’s original plan was to aim for 300 wins in his final season, before retiring. However, an injury in the October – just as the National Hunt season was getting going – put a sad end to that goal, something AP says he “will never get over”.

    “When I realised the 300 mark wasn’t going to happen, I changed it to 200, which happened to fall on that day at Newbury. Not many knew about it; my late mother found out I was retiring from the TV. It was hard announcing it live on television. I was tearful and it was tough getting the words out of my mouth.”

    AP has been keeping himself busy during retirement over the past five years, managing to adapt following that life-changing announcement at Newbury.

    He’s been able to enjoy his food and he’s relished days spent with his family, wife Chanelle and young children Eve and Archie, while not forgetting his beloved golfing holidays abroad. He has also set up a pre training yard at his Lambourn base, Lodge Down Stables, and he assists in the management of JP McManus’ racehorses in the UK.

    Perhaps most notably, AP has been part of the ITV Racing presenting team on the big days, such as Cheltenham and Aintree – an experience he says “keeps his mind occupied”. He also partnered up with top showjumper Big Star in 2016 for the pages of Horse & Hound, featuring as the cover hero for that week’s issue of the magazine.

    “Nothing will ever fill the void left after being champion jockey for so long, it consumed my life,” he reflects. “But I don’t miss having doctors on speed dial. I don’t miss spending hours on the motorway. I just miss winning, that’s the one thing I miss more than anything.”

    ‘My favourite horse’

    Synchronised – AP won the 2012 Cheltenham Gold Cup on the Jonjo O’Neill-trained gelding, who was owned by JP McManus.

    The pair then contested the Grand National a month later. They fell at the sixth fence. However, the nine year-old got up and ran on loose before being fatally injured.

    “Synchronised was particularly special to me because I actually won on his dam, Mayasta, at Punchestown in 1996. She was also owned by JP and it was back when I was getting going as a jump jockey,” says AP.

    “So winning the Gold Cup on him was sentimental and he provided me with one of my best days in the saddle. Losing him in the Grand National that year was tragic.”

    Richard Johnson on AP…

    “He was a brilliant jockey and very tough, he never gave up on a horse. He was a fierce competitor and we had many great seasons riding together – I have fond memories that bring a smile to my face.

    “In any sport, to be champion for two decades is just incredible. He was also a much-liked jockey – you’d be hard pushed to find anyone with bad words about him.

    “He was the person I used to go to for advice; we were on the same wavelength and I found him easy to chat to. Of course, my riding career benefited hugely when he retired and I was able to become champion jockey.”

    Dave Roberts on AP…

    “I was his agent from day one and we spent two brilliant decades working together. It was my job to get him on the quantity of horses that would help him remain champion.The late trainer Toby Balding had sent me a videotape of him riding in Ireland and you could just see that he was way above average for a young jockey. He just had a knack of getting horses to win who shouldn’t have done. He had the right attitude and mental strength; he was just obsessed with winning.

    “Looking back, there were more highs than lows and we never had a cross word between us, he was the ultimate professional. We didn’t see that much of each other – it was all done over the phone – but we had a good understanding of each other. He made my job much easier and we had a great friendship, too. I will always be very proud of him and what we achieved together.”

    Oliver Townend on AP…

    “Watching AP in the saddle, what always stood out for me was the complete confidence he had in himself that he could win any race on any horse. Sometimes I convince myself that, whatever horse I’m riding, I can win and when I don’t, I beat myself up about it – I can relate to AP in that way.

    “He impressed me with how focused he was during his career and he’s impressed me after his retirement, anybody who can hold it together after retiring from a career they love has my utter respect. His strength of character has been inspirational.”

    Ref Horse & Hound; 7 May 2020