AP McCoy's craziest race on a donkey with a mind of its own
The most successful jump jockey of all time was coaxed back into the saddle for a madcap fundraiser. Ivan Little went to watch the fun
He's got more broken bones than a casualty ward, but Tony McCoy narrowly avoided another fall in the wackiest of wacky races - a donkey derby that put the ass back in Moneyglass, the jockey's home village near Lough 'Neigh'.
The world's greatest ever rider almost ended up on his you-know-what several times as his manic mule hurtled him around the course but AP hung on for dear life to avoid a nightmare as he came out of retirement for the one-off charity contest.
And afterwards the 20 times champion jockey said: "I've made one important discovery today - donkeys are every bit as stubborn as people say they are. I had absolutely no control over mine."
Hundreds of local people had thronged Moneyglass for a day-long series of events to celebrate their favourite son's illustrious and record-smashing career.
But there were none of the usual luxuries that the multi-millionaire superstar might have expected at Aintree or Cheltenham as he changed into his silks in the corner of a marquee at a pub, revealing to prying eyes that underneath it all he's a Calvin Klein man.
Tony's sister Anne-Marie and his brother Colm run the Tumbledown Inn and their famous sibling was hoping that its name wasn't a precursor of things to come. He said: "I have ridden plenty of horses that turned out to be donkeys in my time but never a real one. However, I'm delighted to be able to help the Northern Ireland Children's Hospice which is a great cause."
Epsom it wasn't, but the organisers of the Moneyglass derby had ensured that the Grand National winner wasn't the only sportsman who might make an ass of themselves.
Northern Ireland footballing legend David Healy was hoping to score big-time for the hospice but he had nagging doubts about his nag. He said: "I've no idea about how to ride a donkey and looking at the track here I'm getting a little bit nervous. There could be a bit of havoc with so many inexperienced jockeys in the race."
World champion boxer Carl Frampton was scratched from the race by his boss Barry McGuigan.
But good sport that he is, the Clones Cyclone took the place of the Jackal even though he feared he might end up a jackass.
"I volunteered my body in place of Carl," he said. "I'm sacrificing my bones for him. I couldn't let him ride because he has a fight coming up and we couldn't run the risk of him being injured."
Carl was at Moneyglass to see the race, however. "I would have been happy to have a go. But Barry was insistent," he revealed. "However, I'm glad to be here to support the charity and AP. He's a fantastic sportsman and ambassador."
Tony's sister Anne-Marie was surprisingly calm on her brother's big day. "We wanted to do something to mark his retirement because we are all so proud of him, but getting a date that suited everyone wasn't easy," she said. "One idea was to hold a Night at the Races but when someone suggested a donkey derby we thought that would be a bit of fun. And he readily agreed to join in."
On their way to the parade ring, all the riders took time to make another McCoy from the Toomebridge area feel extra-special. Stephen McCoy's promising boxing career was halted and he was left paralysed and wheelchair-bound after the Kegworth air disaster in England in 1989.
"He's really made up to see so many of his favourite sporting personalities in the one place," said Stephen's sister and carer Yvonne.
The DUP Mayor of Antrim and Newtownabbey, Councillor Thomas Hogg, was there "to salute a sporting icon" and was able to cast a surprisingly expert eye over the donkeys: Basil, Parsley, Lucy Lockets, Primrose, Two-Stroke Harry and Joey's Gem.
The mayor said: "My father has donkeys. But I've never been on one."
Tyrone GAA star Sean Cavanagh was a late addition to the race after Kilkenny hurler Eoin Larkin had to pull out.
Said Sean: "I only got the call a few hours ago. I didn't even have time to think about the wisdom of what I was doing."
And by the look of terror on his face as four hefty men helped him onto his donkey, it was a safe bet that he was wishing they'd recruited his pal Joe Brolly instead.
Not that any of the jockeys appeared all that comfortable as they saddled up, not that there were any saddles, mind you.
Belfast's favourite housewife May McFettridge introduced the jockeys for what turned out to be crazy canters in the paddock, a glorified name for a field behind the Tumbledown.
And before many of the riders knew anything about it - and before they could even come under starter's orders - they were off, with the donkeys making all the running.
Local man Mick McGrogan sauntered into an early lead before his mount decided to offload him.
Within seconds the new-fangled donkey-riding McCoy took up where the old maestro left off. At the front of the field. But his donkey tried to throw him into a hedge or two and before long McGuigan delivered a knockout blow to AP's chances of a triumphant homecoming.
Barry, who can normally talk the hind leg of a donkey, was struggling to keep his balance on this one but the boxer wasn't for throwing in the towel. And the Monaghan man was first past the finishing post - metaphorically speaking because there was no actual finishing post, not even a finishing line.
"It was nearly impossible to stay on the b****y thing," he laughed after he collected the Moneyglass Gold Cup.
"And I did get thrown off but thankfully the race was already over. However, I can now say that I beat the one and only AP McCoy in a horse race."
AP, who's 41, said: "I really enjoyed that. I didn't fall off but I was close to going into the hedges."
Boxer Brian Magee, wearing a go-pro camera, captured a lot of the action from a variety of angles. "I was thrown off twice but I got back on to complete the derby, though I had little to do with it. It was the donkey's decision to race to the finish, not mine," he said. Former Ibrox star Healy felt like the Lone Ranger. "I was one of the few who didn't fall off. When my donkey charged away, I didn't know what to do - except to hold on," he said.
May McFettridge said the race was a pantomime, and she should know. "I haven't laughed so much in a long time," she said. "My money was on McGuigan but I'm scundered. By the time I went to collect my payout the woman who took my 30p bet had ridden off into the sunset."
But the real winner on the day was the Children's Hospice. Noreen Kennedy, community fundraising manager, said: "It's been unbelievable. To see so many celebrities helping us has been heart-warming. The generosity from them and from the people of Moneyglass is really appreciated."
The Moneyglass money-spinner drew McCoy fans from all over Northern Ireland. Feargal Wilkinson from Glenavy and Martin Nelson from Crumlin were there just to see their hero in the flesh. Martin said: "Tony has been good for punters here, - including me and Fergal. So we wanted to say thank you to him and back a wonderful charity in the process."
Afterwards McCoy eased himself back into his retirement and friends said the odds are that he won't be back on a donkey again. "In fact, you can put your house on it," said one.