Tony McCoy: the greatest jockey of all time
Now just two victories away from a record-breaking 4,000 wins, Northern Ireland's champion jockey AP McCoy talks to Jack Brennan about his incredible success, family life and his rather raunchy first novel
He is quite simply the greatest jump jockey of all time, and one of the greatest sportsmen Northern Ireland has ever produced. AP McCoy has won it all – the Grand National, the Gold Cup, the King George VI Chase, you name it, and he's been first past the post. Away from the track he is a proud husband and father of two, been awarded an OBE, and won the BBC Sports Personality of the Year award.
He is also chasing down his 4,000th career win, a milestone which is unlikely to be surpassed anytime soon.
McCoy is now just two race wins away from the astonishing landmark, having won twice at Kempton yesterday.
Taking my phone call as he was walking through a busy airport, he immediately apologised for the fact his phone had been engaged when I rang him a few moments earlier at our pre-arranged time. It was a simple gesture, but one that was to prove typical of this very unassuming and down-to-earth champion. Though we'd never spoke before, McCoy was soon talking to me like we were old friends who met most mornings out on the stable yard.
Aside from that CV, his winning personality is one of the most striking things about McCoy – after all, he could be forgiven if there was just the odd hint of pride about all his success, but the truth is you won't catch him boasting.
For, as I discovered during our chat, the man from Moneyglass is as humble as he is talented. That's not to say that he isn't fiercely competitive, though, and the 39-year-old freely admits that he has been thinking about that landmark 4,000th career win for some time. "It's been on my mind obviously for a while," he says.
"My first target each season is to win 125 races. If you're going to be a champion jockey then you have to be riding 125 winners a season. I don't mind saying how hard it's been to do it – it's been physically and mentally challenging – but it's something that I'm very proud of."
Of course, riding his 4,000th winner will warrant some sort of celebration, but being the professional that he is, McCoy says he will only be having a small low-key bash, before getting back in the saddle the following day.
"I'll be working the next day but I'll probably go down the pub with a few friends and a few other jockeys," he says. "I don't drink but I won't let it pass without a celebration that's for sure. They'll probably have a few drinks for me no doubt.
"I like challenging myself and I'm very proud, it's the first time I don't mind saying that."
As well as getting ready to surpass the 4,000 winner milestone, McCoy has another reason to be cheerful this month – somehow amid all the racing he has managed to pen his first novel.
The thriller, Taking The Fall, on Thursday, charts the fortunes of Duncan Claymore, a suave ladies' man and an up-and-coming young jockey with the world at his feet. He has his sights set on reaching the top, but his demons threaten to overwhelm him.
Generally, the book is probably in the style of a Dick Francis racing thriller, with a flash of Fifty Shades of Grey, and certainly the book unleashes a side to McCoy never before seen in public. The novel shows that behind the magnificent jockey is a man with a vivid imagination – one capable of putting together a pacey and perhaps at times surprisingly explicit read.
One particular raunchy excerpt of the book records when Claymore and his latest flame have just made love. 'Christie lay a few inches away, recovering her breath, staring at the ceiling. She was wearing nothing but a pair of black thigh-length, high-heeled leather boots ...' The following sentence gets even steamier, but you'll have to wait until Thursday to read that part.
McCoy is clearly pleased with the finished result: "I'm really happy with the book and how it has turned out," he says. "It's a little explicit in places. I don't think I would allow my daughter to read it if she was a few years older."
Laughing, he adds: "Mind you, my wife said that it would be good if it was a little bit racy in places, to show I'm not just a boring old jockey.
"If people want to read about that they can read my autobiography!"
Perhaps the nature of the fictional Duncan Claymore shows us that McCoy, like many men really, longs to be a smooth ladies' man with dashing good looks and charm ...?
"My wife says that she would have liked to have met Duncan when she was 21, put it that way.
"But it was hard work, thinking of plotlines and a story. I don't want to spoil it for people, but I think the last two chapters are the best, I like them the most – how the book ends is my favourite part."
Since turning professional in 1995, McCoy has been champion jockey an unprecedented 18 times, and broken almost every record there is, as well as pretty much every bone in his body in the process. He is revered among punters – once they see him in the saddle, they usually back his horse to win.
Born in Co Antrim in 1974 to Paedear and Claire McCoy, Anthony Peter McCoy, better known as AP or Tony, was destined to ride horses. One of seven children, McCoy has five sisters and one brother, and was never particularly interested in school. He spent much of his spare time thinking about or riding horses, or watching his beloved Arsenal on television, citing Liam Brady and Pat Jennings (after he moved from Tottenham) as his heroes.
McCoy was just 11 years old when local horse trader Billy Rock offered him the opportunity of working at his yard. Four years later he knew the only thing he wanted to do in life was to become a jockey, but in order to do so, he would have to leave Moneyglass.
Although McCoy moved to England when he was just 15, he says that his home will always be in Northern Ireland. "It's great when I can get home. Sadly I had to leave when I was young because I knew there wasn't a future in horse racing there and I'd have to (move) further afield," he says.
"But I do miss home. I've got family back there obviously, and at the moment they come over to visit me more often than I can get to visit them. I really enjoyed living in Northern Ireland, though."
McCoy left the country of his birth eight years before the Good Friday Agreement was signed but keeps a close eye on events back home and says the transformation here is wonderful.
He adds: "It's great to see how much the north of Ireland has changed over the years. I left in 1990 and it's amazing to see how the place has been transformed in 23 years."
Away from the racetrack, McCoy is very much a family man, with the newest addition to the household arriving in August this year, when his wife Chanelle gave birth to Archie-Peader. The couple have another daughter Eve (5). However, while McCoy makes winning look so effortless, the couple's ability to conceive was not so straightforward.
McCoy's excessive use of hot baths to keep his weight down for racing, led to fertility problems when he and his wife tried to have a baby back in 2007. Revealing in his autobiography how a simple bath could lead to issues having kids, he wrote: "You don't think about your fertility when you are sitting in a piping hot bath for an hour every morning. You are thinking of keeping your weight in check, not that it might have a detrimental effect on your ability to procreate."
Happily, a month after starting IVF treatment in 2007, Chanelle was pregnant and Eve was born later that year. After trying for a second baby last year the first round of the initial treatment failed, but a second course of IVF worked and AP Jnr was born in August.
Perhaps unusually for a successful jockey's wife, Chanelle doesn't have to rely on her husband's winnings. She has her own successful career, jointly managing a pharmaceuticals firm with her father, employing 250 people and turning over £50m a year. Living in their 6,500sq ft, 100-acre mansion with spectacular views over the Wiltshire Downs, life is pretty sweet for the McCoys.
McCoy says that spending time with his wife and children offers a welcome distraction when things don't go his way on the racecourse – he has been known to have his darker moments, not always taking losing graciously.
"Having kids changes your mindset," he says. "The most important thing for me now is my two children. And it's helped me in a way in my career as a jockey; they keep you grounded and also, if I've had a bad day at the races, you can go home and your mind is taken off it."
McCoy admits that his busy schedule means that he doesn't get to spend as much time at home with his family as he would like, although the changing of the seasons does mean that he can get home a little earlier.
He explains: "Sometimes it's difficult to balance work and family life, certainly during the spring and summer months it can be hard, and I can be away for most of the day.
"In the wintertime it's easier, though, as the nights obviously get darker earlier. There's two days a week that I'm home at 5pm."
It's easy to understand why McCoy struggles to find much spare time right now.
His is a mercilessly demanding schedule in what can be a treacherous sport. A typical week sees him rising at 6.15am on two to three days, heading to the stables and riding eight or nine horses before going to his car for a quick nap.
After that it's to the sauna to lose a pound or two before riding as many as seven races each day – sometimes at different race-courses. In the winter time he works seven days a week, barring injury or suspension.
McCoy is indeed a consummate champion with decades in the saddle, but he cites hard graft and dedication to his sport as the reasons for his success. And with great success comes great sacrifice. The continuous need to monitor his weight means a strict diet, daily saunas and those long, intensely hot baths.
He stands at 5ft 10in, relatively tall for a jockey. In order to maintain a suitable weight for racing he must keep his weight down to 10 stone.
"I think in any sport you've got to be prepared to work hard to be successful. No-one is going to give it to you; no one has certainly given it to me," he says.
Away from the track McCoy is a huge Arsenal fan, attending as many matches as will fit in to his busy schedule, with mid-week fixtures and Champions League matches the most likely games he can get to.
But he admits that he likes all kinds of sports, watching and playing as much as possible. He says: "I'm a huge golf fan, but I like any sport in general. I watch a lot of sport, whether it's snooker or anything, I'll watch it."
Horse racing is not a sport for the faint-hearted, with painful injuries a regular occurrence, especially when you ride in as many races as McCoy does.
So, for a man who has broken nearly every bone in his body, it's a little surprising in some ways that McCoy has a fear of hospitals. Perhaps one would have thought that he would be used to them by now, having visited them often enough throughout his career.
One particularly bad break came when McCoy was just 18. Riding an unpredictable horse called Kly Green in January 1993, he was thrown to the ground when the horse smashed in to a wooden rail and broke his leg so badly it kept him out of racing for five months.
It is just one of dozens of injuries that McCoy has suffered over a long and illustrious career. And yet it epitomises how he continues to bounce back from injury every time – and also of the hugely addictive pull of his chosen sport.
Still, while the fear of hospitals is something that many of us share, there is something else in McCoy's past that fewer people will have encountered.
Two years ago, the ghost of a soldier forced McCoy and his family in to fleeing their former home in Berkshire, south east England. Wife Chanelle and their daughter said that they heard the ghost opening and closing doors as well as walking up and down the stairs. While at a race in Liverpool, he received a panicked phone call from Chanelle telling him that she could hear someone walking about upstairs.
He says: "We didn't have to sell it in the end but the house was definitely haunted for sure."
With Arsenal and horse racing his two big passions in his life, it is hardly surprising that it is from these two walks of life that some of McCoy's heroes emanate. "Liam Brady and Pat Jennings were the reasons I started supporting Arsenal. Also Lester Piggot is another big hero of mine."
With a career spanning 21 years in the sport, a trophy cabinet that is full to the brim and more broken records than a car boot sale, the parting thought from AP McCoy is about one of his core values – one he has stuck to throughout his success.
"I think being honest is the most important thing. Being honest with yourself and with other people."
And he adds: "Whether it's what people want to hear or not, I think it's important to be open."
Five giant leaps to victory
5 Family Business, 2002 – Feast of St Raymond Chase, Southwell – the first ever 999-1 winner. The feast of St Raymond Novice Chase was not pretty to watch but a race the likes of which will never be seen again. McCoy's horse made a bad mistake at the 10th fence, unseating him. It looked as if victory was to be left to someone else that day, however with the other runners also making mistakes, McCoy remounted, regained the lead and won.
4 Edredon Bleu, 2000 – Queen Mother Champion Chase, Cheltenham – despite being headed after the final fence, McCoy was able to persuade his horse to give a little extra and snatched victory by a short head in the final stride.
3 Pridwell, 1998 – Martell Aintree Hurdle, Aintree – another last-gasp victory at Aintree, McCoy beat the hot favourite and Champion Hurdle winner Istabraq by a head.
2 Don't Push It, 2010 – John Smith's Grand National, Aintree – having failed to win the Grand National in 14 previous attempts, his win in 2010 filled the one remaining gap in his incredible racing CV.
1 Wichita Lineman, 2009 – William Hill Trophy, Cheltenham – after a series of blunders, most punters would have given up on the hot favourite's chances of winning. But McCoy somehow managed to rally the horse in the closing stages to take the win by a whisker.