Champion Jockey Tony McCoy would push it right to the end
TONY McCoy came across a documentary about US Navy Seals last week and memories of his extraordinary career came flooding back.
In phase one of training, Navy Seal recruits do five and-a-half days of almost continuous physical exercise during which they barely sleep and cover in excess of 200 miles.
It’s beyond tough, but there’s a way to make it stop. If anyone wants to quit all they have to do is ring a bell and the bell is always there; just reach out and pull the rope. ‘Ding-a-ling’ and you get your stuff and go home.
Plenty of hardmen have done it, but McCoy would never ring that bell.
From the age of 15, when he left Moneyglass to start an apprenticeship at Jim Bolger’s yard in England, until he retired as a 20-time Champion Jockey in 2015, giving up was never an option.
“I’m not as stubborn as I used to be, but if it was a choice between dying or giving in, I’d rather die,” he said without a flicker of emotion.
“Somebody was talking about Roger Federer, about how good he is. Yes, he’s good but he has a dark side, you can’t be that good without a dark side.
“There’s something in Roger Federer that is dark, we don’t know what it is, but there’s a madness in there. We all have it – you look like Zidane or Tyson or Schumaker… There’s a madness in them all.
“There has to be something in there that will make you be mad and go to the end.
“You can’t shut it down, that’s why there’s no quitting. Pain is temporary, quitting is permanent.”
McCoy rode over four thousand horses to victory in a career that saw him win everything in jump racing from the Cheltenham Gold Cup to the Grand National. But the emergency ward was almost as familiar as the winners’ enclosure. No-one knows pain like he does, no-one you’d ever meet anyway. McCoy was the guest speaker at The Irish News Allstars in Armagh on Thursday night and he’s taller than you might expect and looks younger now than when he rode. Tanned and fit, he’s had his teeth fixed since his retirement two years’ ago and the weight he’s put on since he last raced suits him.
“I had to get my teeth done, I’ve pretty much got new teeth,” he explains.
“My teeth had been broken so many times I had to have 12 implants and two bone grafts. It took about a year-and-a-half. I got kicked in the face a couple of years ago and I took a photo in the ambulance. A friend of mine texted me shortly afterwards: ‘What do you fancy (at the meeting)?’
“I said: ‘I fancy getting to fucking hospital’. I had to get 25 stitches in my nose and I got my front teeth knocked out.”
He shows me the pictures. Two were taken in the ambulance and two more from a fortnight later when the injury had begun to heal.
Most of us wouldn’t go within five furlongs of a horse again if we’d been through that, but he couldn’t wait to get back in the saddle because that’s where everything made sense.
He says he “wasn’t bred for it”, but from his early days he had the single-minded determination to reach the very top of the sport.
“If you work hard enough anything’s possible,” he says.
“What are the chances of me, somebody from a non-racing family in the north of Ireland, being Champion Jockey for 20 years in-a-row? I have no racing background. Yeah, my dad had a few horses but no-one in my family had ever ridden horses, I wasn’t bred for it.
“I wanted to be a jockey, I was prepared to make the sacrifice at a young age. I never thought about packing it in and I only rode nine winners in my four and-a-half years with Jim Bolger so I wasn’t an overnight success.”
He adds: “Bolger’s was like a military camp.
“I learned a lot of things that made me better. I hated it, I was there four and-a-half years and I hated it when I was there to a point where it was like torture but it made me.
“Long days, hard work, very strict discipline, polish your boots every morning… There was no such thing as being five minutes’ late and you were getting that well paid. It wasn’t as if you were doing it for the money.
“I was like: How much do you want it?”
He got out at the top and it was his decision to go but even that was a form of self-torture. He admits he thought of a comeback, but he wouldn’t allow himself to do it and life hasn’t been straightforward in the two years since he retired. Now he has time to kill and he misses the buzz and the crowds.
“It’s not replaceable, it’s just not,” he says.
“You can go into business, finance, property or whatever it is, but it ain’t coming back. When you are in sport, when you get up in the morning there’s expectation on you. You go out in front of thousands of people, you’re a leader, everyone is looking at you to be the leader… That’s never coming back.
“A lot of sports people won’t admit it but there’s the adulation as well. You look around some days and there’s 70,000 people cheering for you.
“But at the same time I feel like I’ve forgotten what I used to do.
“All my life was about discipline and having a goal, chasing something, trying to perform better tomorrow than you did yesterday. I never content, I was always on edge, I was always chasing.
“When that’s gone there is nothing to replace it. There’s nothing to replace it and you have to accept that.
“I was lucky because I was able to retire on my terms, I was able to decide when I wanted to go. I made my mind up five years before I got to that point that I would retire when I was still Champion Jockey.
“Very few sports people retire at the top. The keep going too long and their performances aren’t as good as they were. I wanted to be gone before I got to that stage but that was hard, it was nearly like punishing yourself.
“There are days I wished that the sport had retired me rather than I had retired from it. I often wish I hadn’t walked away but there’s that little bit of madness, or stubbornness in me that wouldn’t ever let me go back once I’d made a decision. Once I have something in my mind, it doesn’t change.”
Since he left the stage Richard Johnson has taken over as Champion Jockey. Johnston turned 40 this year so the end will come soon for him too and McCoy doesn’t see the same hunger in the youngsters coming through.
“I sound like a retired jockey here,” he says.
“I thought every day I got up that everyone was better than me, everyone was a danger to me other than when I was on a horse.
“I don’t know if there’s the hunger in a lot of jockeys now. I think the standard was probably better when I started than it was when I finished.
“There are still brilliant jockeys – the likes of Ruby Walsh is the best jockey I’ve ever seen over jumps – but I don’t know if the hunger is there as much. I think maybe they have it easy, an easier upbringing.
“In my last few years’ racing, a young lad would ride five or six winners and he’d drive into the carpark in a new BMW. I never had a BMW until God knows when. My first car was a Peugeot 205, I had a Golf, a Jetta… They don’t have the grounding that I had.”
He’d love to have his time again, but has to accept that it’s over now. Yesterday morning he was out at Lambourne taking a horse out for JP McManus. Maybe he’ll be a trainer himself?
“I kind of do what suits me,” he says.
“There’s a lot less routine than I’ve had for 20 years. It’s alright, but it’s not what I’m used to.
“I’m lucky, I have no regrets, I couldn’t have tried any harder and I know that I left nothing behind me. I don’t know if every sports person could say that. I didn’t take any shortcuts, I didn’t miss any days – I didn’t decide ‘I’m not getting up, I’m tired’.
“I know I couldn’t have been any more professional but, in saying that, if I could do it again I’d be better. I rode 4,357 winners but I rode 14,000 losers too. If was doing it again surely to God I wouldn’t have lost all 14,000.
“If someone said I could give it all back and start again, I’d take me chances. I’d give it all back to have another go.”
But you can’t quit and you can’t go back.