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Dreams die but heroes like AP McCoy will live on forever

By Gail Walker

Published 14/04/2015

AP McCoy
AP McCoy

So, alas it wasn't to be for AP or Rory and their two respective dreams over the weekend. For once, neither was to trouble history. And Yet, in some sense they still win, leaving their distinctive trace on the landscape of the heart. For as the song says, heroes sometimes fail. And it is precisely those failures that throw the triumphs into greater relief.

From now on, whenever we think about the 2015 Grand National, we won't just remember the success of 33-1 outsider Many Clouds, but also the mundane fifth place of AP McCoy's Shutthefrontdoor. Those of us who watched the race will know how that result doesn't remotely reflect the epic, whiteknuckle performance of our man, a contender until only the last seconds. The great winner, the dream-maker, doesn't make it at the final gasp. There is no fairytale ending. But we have had hundred and hundreds of fairytales come true thanks to the Moneyglass jockey.

In the end, McCoy won only one National - in 2010 on Don't Push It. Yeah. Only one. But there was no gap in his record. No failure, no great race unwon. The Champion Jockey for the best part of two decades, he has worked his way into the hearts of us all, here in Northern Ireland, but also all over the world. Indeed, Saturday was the high water mark of that affection as people put their money where their heart was, making Shutthefrontdoor an rather unlikely favourite.

And what would you prefer to have - a smug expression and a few quid saying that you were right, or a beaten docket with McCoy's mount written on it? Now that would be something to cherish, something to show the grandchildren. A losing docket that says more about triumph, courage and genius than any record book ever could.

The strange thing is that AP is not from the classic mould of Ulster's sporting heroes. Taller, at 5ft 10ins, than the average jockey (and possibly the average person from this place), he seems modest, grounded, relatively unchanged by his vast success. Not for him the mercurial brilliance of Alex Higgins, or George Best - profound sporting talent spliced with human weakness.

No, McCoy's character seems to spring more from the soil of rural Co Antrim (it is surely no coincidence that another famously modest legend, Willie John McBride, hails from there too). He stepped out of the same world that gave us Pat Jennings, the Dunlops and Dennis Taylor. Sensible, solid, straightforward.

While McCoy's crossing the finishing line of retirement draws ever closer, we should cherish these final days and begin thinking of how to celebrate properly a favourite son who helped put us on the map in the ways beyond the shadings of a border, a line here or there, or the grandiose poses of our political class.

Like all the greats, McCoy has effortlessly risen above the twisty outworkings of the country he hails from, mixing easily with everyone, from flat-capped racegoer to royalty, and losing nothing of himself.

As indeed does that rather modern sportsman Rory McIlroy. A sporting figure who like the rest of us is grappling with the contradictions of being from this wee place, he, too, embodies the best of us. The son of more suburban, rather more middle-class Northern Ireland certainly, but - in the end - still one of us. Except, of course, blessed with more talent than anyone could dream of, matched with a compulsion to be the best in his chosen field.

Like McCoy (below), Rory was not at his brilliant best this weekend, and those two late bogeys on Saturday stalled his quest for a career grand slam. And yet... the heart soars. If you looked at the leaderboard at any point during the four days in Georgia there he was, McIlroy. These things matter. Maybe we are a bit more engaged with our high achievers than people elsewhere, but that's because for so long so little was expected of us and what there was might have been dark and unhappy.

The fact that genuine world-beaters do emerge from among our number is to be celebrated, because even being "on the leaderboard" builds a platform for new generations and new talent. The bar in so many sports, as in the creative arts and industry, is very high in Northern Ireland, and it should be kept that way.

Sometimes, we are little blase about the achievements of our sporting stars. Another Champion Jockey, another Open winner, another all-conquering boxer, footballers by the dozen (true, they seem to have dried up recently), wizards of the green baize, one more king of the road. We turn up world champions with unerring consistency. And this from a place probably a little smaller than the greater Birmingham area.

Who knows how we do it, but the fact is that we do - year in, year out. It makes us a rather amazing people. We should be proud of our heroes and, just a wee bit, proud of ourselves. Even when things don't go quite to script, the quality of our failures still exceeds the victories of bigger, wealthier, more populous places.

Follow me onTwitter @GWalker9

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