EXCLUSIVE: 18-times champion jockey reveals he has shelved plans to retire in the near future
Over the years, AP McCoy has given the bookies little reason to smile. But this Sunday he could make them laugh all the way to the bank should he pip Andy Murray for the BBC Sports Personality of the Year.
The Wimbledon champion is such a short-priced favourite, at 1-50, that bookmakers have opened two markets: one with a price for Murray and one without. A McCoy win at 20-1 would avoid the six-figure pay-outs the bookies fear should the Wimbledon champion triumph. Surely, as a racing man, McCoy fancies his odds?
“Yeah,” he says. “But there’s a lot less chance of the 1-50 shot not winning. It does happen now and again but Andy’s done fantastically well and there are lots of other worthy contenders like Ben Ainslie turning the America’s Cup around. I’m not into sailing but that was a fantastic achievement, so was Justin Rose winning the US Open. This year the field is very strong.”
This, McCoy feels, is in great contrast to 2010 when he became the first person from the world of horseracing to win the award. He says: “No disrespect but the other nominees were a bit like myself, they were probably helped by the fact that participants in the higher-profile sports didn’t have great years: the likes of the England football team at the World Cup [in South Africa] and the Formula One drivers not doing so well.”
And 2010, when he finally won the Grand National, also saw “a big campaign by racing to get behind me. The racing public are very loyal so, hopefully, I’ll get some support. But, even though people involved in racing think that it has a big sporting stage, it is a minority sport compared to some of the other high-profile events: football, Formula One or golf.
“It’s nice to be nominated, very flattering. Obviously it’s a public vote, you can never be sure which way the public will see things, but [to win] you need a little bit of luck on the way.”
The career of the 39-year-old does not suggest luck has much to do with it. Champion jump jockey every year since 1996, the Northern Irishman dominated the headlines last month when he became the first National Hunt rider to achieve 4,000 winners.
But while he says the win on Mountain Tunes at Towcester was “a memorable day for me”— more special than winning the Grand National at his 15th attempt — nothing will match April 2, 2002. Then, riding Valfonic at Warwick, he broke Sir Gordon Richards’s record of 269 winners in a season, which had stood for 55 years.
“When I won on Mountain Tunes, I wasn’t nervous,” he says. “I was hoping when I got close to 4,000 that eventually it would happen. Whereas with Valfonic and Richards’s record, it had to happen within that season. It was all about one season. I didn’t have any room for injuries or suspensions. I had to be there every day so it was a lot more pressure.”
The start of this season saw him injured after being unseated on Quantitativeeasing. “I punctured my lung,” he recalls. “Broke five or six ribs and fractured my sternum, so I missed nearly three and a half weeks. That was a little bit of a setback but, unfortunately, that’s part and parcel of the job. It’s one of the very few jobs in life where the ambulance comes along behind you.”
He says this with such calmness that it is no surprise to learn that his often-stated wish to retire when he has ridden 4,183 winners no longer holds.
That would take him past the number of winners Martin Pipe trained. McCoy rode for Pipe for many years, becoming champion jockey for the first time with him, before moving to trainer Jonjo O’Neill and owner J P McManus.
McCoy has often ribbed Pipe, saying he would only retire when he had got to 4,183. Now he says: “I’m enjoying my job at the moment so I want to keep going as long as I can. It is not the plan to retire at 4,183, that’s for sure.”
So could he go on until he rides 5,000 winners? “Who knows, nothing is impossible,” he says. “It was always an ambition [to pass 4,000] to be honest, because you have to set yourself goals in life. I set the goal when I got to about 3,650, 3,700, or something like that. With about 350 left I kind of thought it’s definitely possible.”
So will he set his sights on 5,000 when he is around 4,600? “Yeah, why not?”
The only thing that would stop him going for 5,000 would be if he was ever dethroned as champion jockey.
“Look, if I was not champion jockey, then I would probably retire because I think it’s a good benchmark,” he says.
“It’s something that I’ve been lucky enough to be for the past 18 years. You want to retire whilst you’re still at or near the top.”
McCoy takes around four to five years to ride 1,000 winners. So, if he were to get to 5,000 by 2017, would he want to ride for another four years to surpass Richards’s 26-year reign as champion jockey? “Gordon was a flat jockey,” he reminds me. “I don’t think I’ll be able to keep going that long.” Then he adds, tantalisingly: “But you never know.”
One reason why McCoy cannot think of retirement is that he dreads the day he will dismount for the last time.
“God knows, I’m not looking forward to it,” he says. “I don’t think I’ll be a trainer. I am not going to give Jonjo a run for his money. I’ll have to find something that challenges me. I like challenging myself. I’m not a person who likes not to work. So, hopefully, I’ll find something that’ll make me happy. I’m very lucky to live my life through a sport that I love. I’m in a very privileged position that my work is my hobby.”
And, given the success and pleasure his hobby has brought, he adds: “I’m never going to get a job or anything that is going to give me the buzz that my life gives me at the moment. It’s not possible. Of course it’s going to be difficult. Hopefully, I’ll be able to accept that fact when it happens.”
However, for now, he happily casts aside thoughts of a bleak retirement and, looking forward to Cheltenham, says that My Tent Or Yours could be a Champion Hurdle winner and At Fishers Cross a World Hurdle prospect.
Then there is the joy of watching Arsenal. Celtic were his boyhood team but such is his love for Arsenal that he would prefer they won the title than he got a knighthood.
He says: “I am very privileged to have an MBE and an OBE. I’m not sure whether I want a Sir to be honest.”
But, should he upset the hot favourite on Sunday, the country’s relieved bookies might lead the clamour for an honour he could not refuse.