AP McCoy’s career statistics speak for themselves.
He has won the Champion Jockey title 18 consecutive times and ridden an unprecedented 4,000 jump winners. Records for the most winners in a season and the time taken to reach career milestones have fallen at his feet and he has won all of the main races in the national hunt racing calendar, from the Cheltenham Gold Cup to the Grand National.
But it is clear when talking to the Lambourn-based racing legend that he remains a humble, genuine family man.
The 39-year-old jockey, originally from County Antrim in Northern Ireland, rode his first jump winner in 1994, and has since captured the imagination of the national hunt world with his brilliance. Having forged a winning partnership with trainer Martin Pipe until 2004, McCoy now rides for multiple trainers, though he is often seen in the green and yellow colours of owner JP McManus on Jonjo O’Neill-trained horses.
This year will be his 20th appearance at the Cheltenham Festival, according to his own calculations, so has the novelty worn off? Not a bit of it.
“I am looking forward to it probably more than ever, because I know that there are a lot more of them behind me than in front of me, so I am going to enjoy what’s left,” he said.
“I’ve been very lucky that I’ve been riding at the Cheltenham Festival since about 1995, I think that was the first year I ever had a ride there.
“Very, very few jockeys get to ride at that many Cheltenham Festivals.”
Renowned for his sheer determination to get the best out of any horse he rides, McCoy is never written off by punters, whatever the calibre of horse he is riding. With his stellar reputation, however, has come the luxury of being asked to ride some of the best chasers and hurdlers, and this Festival is no exception.
In the last few weeks, McCoy has had some conundrums to deal with, with choices to make between well-fancied horses in some of the main races, most notably the World Hurdle and the Champion Hurdle. Last week he announced he will ride the Rebecca Curtis-trained At Fishers Cross in the World Hurdle, rather than the unbeaten, Jonjo O’Neill-trained More Of That.
McCoy said of the pair: “Both of those are horses with a very good chance in that [race]. It was a tough decision, I rode More Of That this morning (Wednesday) and he is flying.
“I was on him thinking ‘maybe I should be riding him at Cheltenham’ but the only worry I have is that it will be his first run at three miles.”
Another diffcult choice McCoy has made is to saddle My Tent Or Yours rather than Jezki.
McCoy highly rates both Nicky Henderson-trained horses but explained My Tent Or Yours’ impressive performance on the all-weather track at Kempton last Sunday ultimately made his decision for him.
“It was hard not be impressed by his (My Tent Or Yours) bumper success at Kempton last Sunday – whether you were watching or riding,” he said.
“Even though we went a good gallop from the start he was still a bit keen, but that is why we wanted to run him – to take the freshness out of him.
“He gave me a great feel and won as we hoped, pulling clear without me asking him too many questions.
“The clock confirmed that he was in good heart for he was almost eight seconds quicker than any other winner over two miles that day and although the form of these races does not mean much, it does show how well Nicky Henderson has him.
“I don’t reject Jezki lightly. He has won over two and a half miles and a Champion Hurdler has to stay. Further more he has been held up on his last two starts in slowly-run races, which has not played to his strengths.
“With a more aggressive ride and in a strongly-run Champion Hurdle he could surprise some of those who might have given up on him.”
On Tuesday it was reported that My Tent Or Yours had suffered a minor injury, but Henderson said he would recover in time to run at the Festival.
Henderson made the unusual choice to run the hurdler on the artificial surface as a result of the relentless rain in February. Typically, trainers are more concerned than jockeys by bad weather, but McCoy admits the rain worried him.
“Some really brilliant horses need decent ground to be the best,” added McCoy.
“Most people will tell you that the very, very best horses will win on any ground in any conditions but I’m not so sure,” he said.
Being a top jockey has come with its sacrifices for McCoy, not least the time he must spend away from his family, the unusual dietary lifestyle he leads, and the constant risk of sustaining a serious injury.
Keeping his weight well below what it would naturally be for a man of his height requires constant attention, and McCoy admits that reaching a suitable riding weight of 10 stone, five pounds can be difficult. However, the fact that it enables him to do the job he loves stops him complaining about it.
“It’s quite hard as I’m quite tall for a jockey. I’m five foot, 10 and a half inches, so trying to keep my weight down is quite difficult,” he said.
“You don’t always get to eat the things you’d like to eat and live that normal a life in that sense. You very much have to watch what you eat, and you’re always trying to lose a little bit of weight, whether it be on a treadmill or in a hot bath or a sauna.”
“But when you sit back and think about it then I don’t really have much to complain about.
“Realistically, it’s not a chore. I wouldn’t swap my job for anyone’s.”
Injuries are part and parcel of being a jockey, and McCoy has had his fair share of them. When reeling off the list it doesn’t appear as though they have bothered him much at all, though the spinal injuries incurred by his good friend JT McNamara in 2013 clearly have.
“I’ve broken my arm, my leg, my ankle, my wrist, my back, all my ribs have been broken at some point, I’ve punctured my lungs, broken my shoulder-blades, collarbones, cheekbones. I’ve broken everything,” he said.
“[But] if you break your arm or your leg, it’s not going to end your career. The spinal cord and the head are the only two things that would really worry me.”
His dedication to the sport is staggering, but as he approaches his 40th birthday, one can’t help but think his career is in its twilight years. Since reaching the 4,000 winner landmark in November, my calculations put him on 4,137 at present. Despite recently saying his wife Chanelle would divorce him if he tried for 5,000 winners, does he think it is in his reach?
“It’s a long way away. You take it day by day,” he said.
“When I rode 3,000 winners it was probably the first time in my life I thought I could ride 4,000 winners.
“When I rode my first winner I never thought I could ride 1,000 winners in my wildest dreams, when I rode 1,000 winners I probably never thought I could ride 2,000 winners, and when I rode 2,000 I never thought I could ride 3,000. But when I rode 3,000 winners I actually genuinely believed I could ride another thousand.
“Could I ride another thousand winners? Nothing is impossible! If I was five years younger I would say “no problem”, but I’m not, so I have to take it day by day and see what happens. And hopefully I won’t get divorced if I do!”
Whatever number he finishes on, he has come further than he can have imagined he would when, as a boy, he first decided he wanted to be a jockey. Despite being inspired by Irish footballers Liam Brady and Pat Jennings, who played for Arsenal, professional boxer Barry McGuigan and snooker player Alex Higgins, McCoy says he never wanted anything else other than to be a jockey.
“When I was a child growing up I wanted to be Champion Jockey. Lester Piggott was my hero,” he said.
“Everyone should dream to be the best, but did I ever think it could happen? Probably not.”
When they’re old enough to realise the magnitude of his achievements, McCoy’s children, six-year-old Eve and six-month-old Archie, will need to look no further than him for inspiration.
Whenever they are at the races it is blindingly obvious that winning a race means a lot to him, but spending time with his family means so much more.
Considering his success and love of the sport, it is interesting that when asked about the possibility of either child becoming a jockey, he responds with almost palpable concern.
“I would probably say no to [Eve] being a jockey, it’s a very physically demanding sport. I certainly wouldn’t be hoping she’d get into that,” he said.
“I think she’s very like her mum anyway, I don’t think there’s any chance of that happening! She’d rather go shopping.
“[As for] Archie, whatever suits him and whatever makes him happy. The way that my wife and his nanny are feeding him, I think he’s got no chance of being a jockey - he looks more like a rugby player or a boxer already.
“Obviously, if he wants to be a jockey then so be it, but I’d rather he played golf if he wanted to get into sport, or football or something that’s a little bit less dangerous.”
The family will soon move into a new house in Upper Lambourn that the McCoys have been building for the last few years. The project has not been without its problems, however, and to non-racing fans in the area, McCoy’s name may ring bells because of his protest against an eventually unsuccessful wind farm proposal in Baydon Meadows in 2011. Having temporarily halted the building process as a result, McCoy confirms the state-of-the-art development, which includes a stable complex, is now back on track and making good progress.
“I’ve got my house finished and I’m just about to build a barn, which will obviously be for the horses,” he said.
“Someone might train there, I don’t know if I ever will or not.”
Given the expertise he demonstrates on the track and the natural affinity he has with horses, the prospect of the Northern Irishman getting a training licence is exciting. It is rare in the modern era in Britain for a former Champion Jockey to go on to be a top trainer; however, one gets the feeling that if anyone is to follow Jonjo O’Neill in this regard, it is his favourite jockey, AP.
For now, however, he has his focus firmly set on riding winners, not training them. From his top contenders in the World Hurdle and Champion Hurdle, to trying to upset the favourites with Teaforthree in the Gold Cup, we can expect to see some vintage McCoy finishes up the famous Cheltenham hill next week.
Until the day he decides to hang up his racing boots, we must cherish every chance we have to see this master at work, and appreciate we have a racing legend who calls Lambourn home.