Evening Standard

All-conquering champion jockey: AP McCoy. Image courtesy of Evening Standard

The good news for those trying to be champion jump jockey is that AP McCoy, who has held the crown since 1996, is thinking of retirement. The bad news is that the Northern Irishman will not quit until he has ridden 3,930 winners. As he is on 3,534 before the start of racing today, that could be some time away.

McCoy has set this target because that would pass the number of British jump winners Martin Pipe, for whom he rode for seven years, trained.

Targets matter to McCoy. For all his achievements, the one he rates most highly is riding more winners than Sir Gordon Richards in one season, setting the new mark of 289 in 2002.

“Sir Gordon Richards was the most successful jockey – flat or jumps – there’s ever been, champion jockey for 26 years. He set a record of 269 winners in the season 55 years before I broke it. That was my greatest achievement.”

But as we meet at a London hotel, McCoy admits with a laugh that the target he has set before he retires is a tease at the expense of Pipe.

“It’s quite a lot of winners for me to get past him and it was more said in jest. He keeps saying that, if I get anywhere close to it, he’s going to take his trainer’s licence back out. Hopefully, it will give him a few sleepless nights.”

He then admits he will quit when he loses the champion jockey’s crown, saying: “That’s me done because then you’re not as good as you once were.”

Considering McCoy has 163 wins this season, putting him 71 ahead of Richard Johnson, it’s likely this won’t be his farewell campaign. The relationship between McCoy and Pipe defined jump racing for almost a decade but, as he accepts, it was curious.

“I never had a written contract, was never officially a stable jockey. When I was younger I had the opportunity to work for him but I stayed with Toby Balding because I thought it was the right time in my career. The second time Mr Pipe approached me, in 1995, I didn’t even give him an answer.”

Pipe took on David Bridgwater but, when that arrangement failed eight months later, McCoy started riding for him. “The job as me being stable jockey was never mentioned, I just kept riding his horses,” he adds.

McCoy concedes that Pipe revolutionised jump racing. “He made the horses and the sport much healthier. People questioned Pipe’s methods until everyone had to start copying him. Training a racehorse has become a science.”

In the end the two men trusted each other so much that, says McCoy, Pipe even stopped telling him what he should do before a race. “I knew what he was thinking and vice-versa.”

Not that this empathy stopped McCoy leaving Pipe for Jonjo O’Neill and JP McManus in 2004. There was much speculation that McCoy had been tempted for a million-pound retainer. As I ask him about it, he laughs: “I’d love to know where that number came from. I did get a retainer but I’d ridden for Martin Pipe for seven years so I needed to prove I could be champion jockey without him. To be honest, any of the top 10 or 15 jockeys riding for him would have been champion jockey.

“If I was ever going to leave Martin Pipe – which I never thought I would – it would have been for Jonjo. I had a lot of respect for him as a jockey, as a person. As for JP he’s a huge supporter of jump racing and I was moving from the biggest trainer to ride for the biggest owner in the country.”

McCoy has twice been honoured by the Queen, receiving an MBE in 2003 and OBE last year but his determination to be the best has taken its toll on him personally. His diet has been shaped by the weight demands riding makes, demands that also affected his ability to have children.

“I was told that there’s near on a million to one chance that I would be able to have children. That was basically down to diet and hot baths which obviously affects your sperm count.”

His wife Chanelle, whom he married in 2006, had Eve through IVF two years later. However, this came after a traumatic relationship when it seemed it would end in tears due to the 37-year-old’s obsession with the sport.

HE confesses his new book, My Autobiography, is a public apology to Chanelle, “She was very young when we met, 19, and she went through a very hard time, mostly always caused by me. At times I did drive her to the point of wanting to leave, once for a year and once for eight months. But I was very lucky she stuck around and, as we say, all ended happily ever after.”

But, if McCoy apologises for his personal failings, he dismisses critics of his unrelenting riding style which may not be pretty to watch but enables him to push horses to their absolute limits.

“The criticism does not hurt because I have always been my own worst critic. I wouldn’t say I don’t respect other people’s opinions but my opinion is the most important.”

Last year McCoy finally won the Grand National at the 15th attempt but his certainty in his own ability meant he was never troubled by his barren run in the Aintree showpiece.

“Obviously, I wanted to win the Grand National but I didn’t lose sleep over it. No disrespect but there’s been a lot of other jockeys who’ve won it who would never have been champion jockey. So it wasn’t a case of thinking I wasn’t a good jockey because I hadn’t won the National. I comforted myself that John Francome, Peter Scudamore, Jonjo O’Neill, multiple champion jockeys before me, hadn’t won it.”

But he then admits: “Winning it was my greatest day in racing. It sticks in my mind probably because so many things happened because of it.”

Most notably becoming the first jockey to win the BBC Sports Personality of the Year, something not even his hero Lester Piggott managed.

While Don’t Push It saw him break his National duck, the horse he has enjoyed riding most is Wichita Lineman, who he rode to wins at the Cheltenham Festivals in 2007 and 2009. “In terms of class, he was not the greatest I’ve ever ridden but was probably one of the bravest. He had an unbelievable will to win.”

In many ways Wichita Lineman reflects McCoy’s own personality. “I’m pretty driven. The more you get, the more you want and, because of that, you become more driven.

“I’ve been very lucky to do a job that is a hobby and I keep saying to people I don’t feel that I’ve done a day’s job in my life. I couldn’t have dreamt that it could’ve gone the way it has.”

AP McCoy: My Autobiography; Orion Books; £20


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