Belfast Telegraph

Tony McCoy: The modest genius who makes it all look so easy

Ivan Little visits the village where the greatest National Hunt jockey of all time grew up, and where locals regard him as their own humble hero

In the joyous Mardi Gras that was Moneyglass yesterday there was more chance of discovering Shergar than there was of finding anyone with a bad word to say about the hideaway hamlet's favourite son Tony McCoy.

Certainly not among the family of his namesake, Stephen McCoy, who was left paralysed as a 16-year-old after the Kegworth air disaster in 1989 and whose spirits are regularly boosted by messages from the racing thoroughbred who clinched his record-shattering 4,000th win of his fairytale career yesterday afternoon.

"Tony's a lovely fella," says Stephen's sister and carer Yvonne.

"He has always made time for my brother and he sent him a signed photo after he moved into his specially adapted house. Stephen loves to see him winning. His father Peadar and brother Colm are always ready to help Stephen with any problems he encounters with his wheelchair. I have a lot of respect for Tony and his family."

Nearby in Tony McCoy's old stomping ground in the bookies in Toomebridge, the occasional punter was whispering the occasional oath in muttered frustration as the award-winning sportsman with the Midas touch failed to strike gold in his first race at Towcester yesterday.

But you could bet that was swiftly forgiven and forgotten as the 18 times champion jockey – dubbed the Real McCoy by the headline writers – clocked up winner number 4,000, scaling what had for long been unimaginable heights on Mountain Tunes an hour later.

"It was a racing certainty that he would do it eventually and I'm glad that I backed him," said one fan of McCoy.

He may be a modern-day legend who even has Facebook pages in his honour, but in Moneyglass they still regard Tony as their own humble hero, a down-to-earth superstar who's never forgotten his roots.

McCoy's runaway success in the horse-racing world is an inspiration to millions in the sport but apart from the milestone moments like yesterday, his greatness is not always fully acknowledged elsewhere. He's arguably one of the finest sporting figures ever to emerge from Ireland or the British Isles generally, but maybe he's a victim of his own success.

For McCoy makes what he does so well look so easy, so effortless. Yet the 39-year-old father of two is the very essence of a man apart – a supreme and sublime champion who has been blessed by the random hand of genius. And as he glides to new pinnacles of perfection he creates the illusion, the delusion, that any of us could step into his stirrups.

But while the lottery of life picked out McCoy as a born winner, it was AP who toiled like a man possessed – obsessed even – to graft and craft his god-given skills into what he is now - an unbeatable master of his trade.

He's too modest and too much of an Arsenal fan to adopt the boastful self-adulation of a Mourinho, but McCoy really is an extra-special one, a paragon of his sporting profession, the likes of whom will never ride this way again. But while racing has paid him richly for his unique talents, AP has had to pay dearly too.

He knew when he left his close-knit family at the tender age of 15 to go to Kilkenny to become an apprentice jockey.

He's also admitted that his fixation with winning impacted heavily for a time on his marriage to Galway girl Chanelle, but their relationship has endured and it's widely recognised that his wife has helped take the coyness out of McCoy, urging him to smile more on racecourses and mix more off them.

In Moneyglass the locals insist he's still the quiet man who even though he enjoys the luxurious trappings that his wealth has lavished on him, hasn't changed a lot from the shy teenager who rode off into the sunset in the 80s.

And as he, his entourage and his family celebrated his 4,000th prize purse at Towcester yesterday, they were just as happy and proud back home in Moneyglass and Toomebridge, a village immortalised in song for its associations with United Irishman Roddy McCorley.

But the reality is Tony McCoy has united far more Irishmen than the martyred rebel ever did.

In the heart of Protestant east Belfast yesterday they couldn't get their wagers on him quickly enough for his big races. "I don't care what foot he kicks with," said one punter "Just so long as he keeps on producing the winners."

The whoop of joy from the bookies on the Holywood Road as McCoy steered his mount to victory was deafening.

In Moneyglass and Toome, everyone it seems has a story to tell about the shy but likeable youngster who many thought was destined to become a farmer not a jockey.

But riding horses for fun was soon replaced by a burning ambition to ride them for a career. "He wasn't a big fan of the schoolwork," said a contemporary. "And everyone was aware that if he wasn't in class Tony would be off with the horses.

Another man who knew him said: "He was very single-minded about it. The life of an apprentice jockey wasn't exactly glamourous. But you had a sense that he would be a winner."

AP's unquenchable desire and determination were matched by a relentless dedication and self-sacrifice that made him spurn the temptations which turned the heads of other young men of his age.

Not for McCoy the bright lights and the late nights of boozing binges. Instead, he embraced the challenges of the early mornings and the long gruelling days of training so that he could reach for the top.

But not even the ambitious McCoy could ever have expected that he would exceed his own expectations and become the greatest National Hunt rider of all time, re-writing the history and the form books, leaving other legends like Sir Gordon Richards and Richard Dunwoody and their records in his wake.

He won his first race as an apprentice with Jim Bolger at the age of 17 in March 1992 on the flat with a horse called Legal Steps.

Footage of the ride shows a composed McCoy displaying little or no emotion as he passed the finishing post at Thurles.

Unfortunately he broke a leg before he could notch up a second win, and as he kept growing taller he realised that he should become a jump jockey in England where he notched up his first success in 1994.

Friends said it was a move to the stable of renowned trainer Martin Pipe that transformed the sometime winner into an all-time winner. In the 1995-96 season it appeared that he couldn't lose and his 175 triumphs earned him the accolade of champion jockey for the first time.

He developed a penchant for breaking records and he became the fastest jockey to attain 1,000 winners in December 1999. Even the most conservative of gamblers wouldn't have bet against him to go on to even greater things.

The cynics, however, reckoned that in 2004 McCoy was on a loser by switching his main allegiances to trainer Jonjo O'Neill (left) and his punter/owner associate JP McManus.

The naysayers were quickly silenced, however, and McCoy, who'd got the victory bit between his teeth, made it 3,000 winners at Plumpton in February 2009 riding Restless D'Artaix.

Even in the weighing room after the magical milestone was reached, he said he was looking towards his 4,000th winner. "It sounds stupid but you have to dream; you have to believe that you can achieve those things otherwise there's no point going out. I spend most of my life dreaming so I'll keep dreaming."

It was a typical soundbite gem from a man who doesn't always say a lot but invariably says the right things even as the next hurdle of the elusive 4000th winner approached in the last few weeks.

In the face of a media frenzy it was apparent from his interviews that McCoy just wanted to get this particular donkey off his back, so to speak.

Inevitably McCoy has now been asked if he could notch up 5,000 winners and he has indicated that he has no plans to hang up his whip. "I am lucky that I enjoy what I do and you need to be successful to enjoy what you do. But I take it day by day."

Even after a glittering career that's amassed him a £14m fortune, it's patently obvious that winning is still what Tony McCoy is all about.

Three years back, observers wondered if McCoy would quit, or at least scale back his rides, after he finally got the winner he'd always craved at Aintree, steering the 10-1 shot Don't Push It to victory in the Grand National.

It was his 15th attempt to end his jinx and he showed how much it meant to him as he fought back the tears after crossing the finishing line – though he later sent himself up as a "big wuss".

Back in Moneyglass, they gave Tony McCoy and his family a homecoming to remember. Not on an open-top bus, mind you. But on a horse and cart.

Even after he finally retires – whenever that happens – it's hard to imagine McCoy ever returning to live in Moneyglass. But he still looks back fondly on the home where he was nurtured and on the parents Claire and Peadar who raised him and his siblings.

What he does with his winnings is, of course, entirely his business, but local people say Tony McCoy has been generous to his family members.

"And he keeps in regular touch with home to let everyone know how he's doing," said one acquaintance.

Sometimes he's been too quick to relay his news.

After his long-awaited Grand National win, he couldn't wait to ring his mum and he was fined £60 for talking on his mobile phone as he drove away from Aintree.

It's not much of a blot on the character of a man who's already been honoured with an MBE and an OBE, and after his Towcester triumph might only be a whisker away from a knighthood.

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