It takes a big man to stand up and say “I was wrong!” Today, I sort of half rise from my chair and mumble “I might have misjudged it slightly”.
The subject on which I now stutter towards a gradual enlightenment is the status of the great AP McCoy, or Sir Anthony as we now know him. And undoubtedly great he is too, that is not in question. I realise that, even after his retirement, I still refer to his enormous talent in the present tense – he is great, rather than he was great. His domination of his profession still looms large over the sport of horse racing.
It seems like he hasn’t gone, but is merely out of action for a while, and will soon return from an injury layoff to again make horses win that otherwise wouldn’t have. It will surely take the momentous milestone of a Cheltenham Festival or Aintree Grand National to reinforce that he really has gone, and allow us to properly gauge the chasm that he leaves.
What I could never get to grips with during his long and very distinguished career was whether I liked the bloke, and whether that mattered anyway if he was capable of winning me money. The latter question is easily dispatched – yes, it matters, at least to me. It is not about the money; that comes and goes in a merry-go-round as permanent as the water cycle and over 25 years of punting has never been enough to materially change my life. Neither, strangely, is it about the winning; that fleeting elation of getting it right subsides with the inevitable onset of future losses.
I remember some winners of course, but for a horse or jockey to grab my affections long term they have to possess something that makes me like them. AP never quite grabbed my affections. He was distant from his adoring public, focused and driven to the point of insularity, and sometimes awkward in the dazzling glare of the media spotlight.
Perhaps I was asking too much. For a man to be at the top of his sport for twenty years, can he also be nice? Nice guys don’t win, do they? Tiger Woods dominated golf, and possessed a similar will to win that created sublime victories from the unlikeliest of lost causes, but he was also an arrogant, selfish and ill-mannered individual with few redeeming qualities other than his ability to win golf tournaments. His peers would not say a bad word about him – not least because he elevated the game to new heights and increased the prize money for everyone – but I sense that many feared him, and very few actually liked him.
With AP it was slightly different. He could be as abrupt and morose in interviews as Woods, as single-minded when going about the task of being number one, but never came across as arrogant. On the contrary, he appeared humble and genuinely appreciative to be doing what he did. It is quite possible that he is simply a private person who stubbornly refused to play the PR game for most of his career.
But in the last few years the tide began to turn. Emotion appeared on the once unreadable face, and his response in the aftermath of his Grand National win in 2010 propelled him to become Sports Personality Of The Year. And then in the final few months of his career, surprisingly, he dealt with his extended retirement circus really rather well, patiently wading his way through autograph after interview after accolade.
What, you may rightfully ask, has induced this period of reflection some nine months after his retirement? It is the quite brilliant film ‘Being AP’ which was released just before Christmas. A documentary crew were lucky enough to follow his final year in the saddle, and what an absorbing and compelling piece of cinema it makes, beautifully shot and exquisitely balanced. The voiceovers from the principals mesh wonderfully with footage of the action, such that it has the feel of watching poetry.
“I’m an addict to riding horses, to winning. It’s all about winning,” he says, matter of fact, “but it wears off and you have to go chasing it again. You have to chase the things you can never catch. I don’t think I was ever really content in my life. No matter how much you chase it you can never really be as good as you can.”
This is surely at the heart of his success story. You would think most people would be happy with being champion in their chosen sport for 20 years, but AP was always striving for more. 4,000 winners – what about 5,000? And a record 289 in one season – what about the magical 300?
The film comes alive with the appearance of long-suffering wife Chanelle, and the dialogue between them demonstrates why great documentary almost always beats great scriptwriting. Over lunch (salad, of course) the pair discuss the prickly topic of retirement.
“This year’s a good year to call it a day? Why on earth would any year be a good year to call it a day?…..I’ve had enough of that conversation.” sulks AP to Chanelle’s gentle probing, before hypothesising “What happens now, eh?”
“Well listen, there’ll be a few lunchboxes to pack, honey, there’ll be a few bins for you to take out.”
AP was not impressed by this suggestion, nor was he in a later scene when his commercial manager learnt of his retirement and beamed “Would you like to be the face of peanut butter?”
The film conveys the danger of the day job without seeking to either glorify or vilify the life of jockeys. We see the face of AP’s agent Dave Roberts change as he watches him, live on TV, take a second crunching fall on an already damaged shoulder. An x-ray shows a dislocated and fractured collarbone. The extent of the damage is not fully relayed to his wife. Then AP rides another winner but grimaces as he pulls up afterwards. From a third fall he walks back in gingerly. From a fourth fall he returns in an ambulance.
We see a gentler side to their relationship as, finally, AP has to admit defeat and contemplate a week in the sun to allow the collarbone to recuperate.
“Are you going to pack my bags?” he asks Chanelle, to which he is given short shrift. “Remind me why I’m bringing you again?” he continues.
“I’m on suicide watch,” she fires back, “…..it’s not all about you!”
“Since when?” he replies, deadpan.
Behind the humour, there is a real message. To become a winner, everything else has to be pushed out of the way.
“He became a really selfish person.” says Chanelle frankly.
“I think you have to be selfish. It has to be all about you.” admits AP
The brilliance of the film lies in its understatement. It never attempts to put the champion on a pedestal, but it is no hatchet job either. It is an honest (brutally so, at times) account of what it is like to be, and be around, somebody at the pinnacle of their sport. It would have been easy to focus on the big winners, the crunching injuries or the constant drudgery of semi-starvation, but it ambitiously aims for a much darker topic – the pain of deciding when to stop – and it succeeds.
Suddenly it is Sandown, and there is no fairytale ending, but I’m not sure one is required. And suddenly I now realise quite how fortunate I was to find myself stood next to AP and Chanelle in the winners’ enclosure after he jumped off for the last time. At the time, I knew something significant was playing out around me, but the feelings were alien to me. It took this great documentary for me to peer behind the mask and understand the tears.
“That is the end. It’s gone. It’s over. I’m a has-been. I’m a retired sportsperson. I might have lived the dream, but I’m awake now.”
Dour, obsessive, perhaps even selfish, but so very human as well. I have changed my mind about AP McCoy. I always knew he was a great jockey. Now I quite like the man as well.