Sandown

There is only one story to be followed at Sandown, and strangely it doesn’t concern my amazing achievement of passing the halfway point of my eighty day quest. Today, AP McCoy shall ride his final race in a glittering career spanning a quarter of a century. For the last twenty of those years, he has been Champion Jumps Jockey.

It is hard to compare achievements in different sports. Was Tiger Woods a better golfer than Phil Taylor a darts player? Did Muhammad Ali dominate boxing more than Michael Schumacher did motor racing? By whichever criteria you attempt to rank them, it would be hard not to have near the top of the list a man so famous in his particular world that he is known simply by the initials AP. It is as near a certainty as you get in horse racing that we will never again see anyone dominate in the way he has, and in a sport where the randomness of injury takes a regular and inevitable toll it is an astonishing achievement to remain undefeated in a professional career spanning two decades, whichever way you measure it.

Of course McCoy didn’t win every race, but there were other factors beyond his control that the other sporting immortals on the list never had to contend with. With AP you felt as though he was good enough to win even if his mount wasn’t, and he often made them do just that. Nobody except the man himself, and perhaps those closest to him, will ever know what possessed him to plough on through the immense pain of so many hidden injuries, the gnawing and constant drudgery of semi-starvation, and the endless hard graft of a day job which embodies ‘commitment’ more than most professional sportspeople will ever know.

And yet (and you can remove my name from the New Years Honours List now) I never particularly liked the bloke. In fairness, he probably doesn’t care much for me either, especially now I’ve said that. For much of his early career AP seemed remote and almost blind to his adoring public. Perhaps it was just his stubborn refusal to play the PR game that made him seem aloof. In later years emotions have crept onto the once imperceptible face, and over the last few months he has done remarkably well in the limelight of the media circus that has surrounded his retirement tour, a position he has previously seemed so uncomfortable in.

There is a sense that to be truly great in your chosen sporting field, you have to remain detached from the detritus of life and focus on only one thing – winning. Schumacher and Woods had it. McCoy also, but what makes him different is that he never became arrogant or conceited; it was difficult to warm to him, but you could never doubt his humility. The weighing room is not the place for self-importance, but even in a peer group full of hard men McCoy carried a certain aura about himself, not forged by clever words or a knowing swagger, but by his relentless deeds at tracks up and down the country – he was simply the best at making horses win races. For twenty years!

So the management of Sandown are no doubt delighted that he is here for his last hurrah. There is a buzz around the place that is more than just the annual celebration of the finale of the jumps season. Many will be here this year specifically to pay homage to the passing of a career that, as the eloquent wordsmith Alistair Down put it “redefined the art of the possible”. I’m joined by Clive, Simon and Murray, and the afternoon starts well as three of us back Lil Rockerfeller in the first at 6/1. Simon gleefully explains that it’s an even sweeter victory because Clive’s horse was second.

We’d seen this win well at Ascot earlier in the tour, and it’s no surprise that the longer this charade goes on the more insight I gain into the nuances behind the bare form facts. The winner wore new cheekpieces when we saw him win at Ascot last time and retains them today – there is a reason for him to improve. Simon thinks I’m winding him up about cheekpieces. He’s actually bought the Racing Post for the first time in his life this morning, but appears to have ‘read’ only the Gee Bradburne piece rather than the racing pages. Later, I really do manage to wind him up. I’ve lingered by the parade ring to see the beginnings of the hoopla as AP comes out to ride Mr Mole in the third race, and then join the guys in the grandstand.

“Did you see all of that in the parade ring? Did they show it on the big screen?” I enquire.

“No. What was going on?” Simon asks.

“Well the other jockeys all came out and presented AP with a retirement gift, some of those long thin balloons for making animals, cos it’s apparently a real hobby of his, just to while away the time in between races, except nobody’s known before because he’s such a private person…..” Simon is actually falling for it, just eek it out a little bit more Neil, “and so he starts making all these amazing animals and hands them out to the crowd…..”. Okay, the game’s up and he’s cottoned on. But I had him for a moment!

I suggest that we watch the fifth on the giant screen by the parade ring so that we can soak up the atmosphere as they come back in after AP’s final race. I’m chuffed with myself that we’ve secured front row spaces to the denouement of an extraordinary career, and am amazed that others haven’t had the same idea. The record books will show that AP McCoy’s final mount, the aptly named Box Office, running in the colours of AP’s boss JP McManus and trained by Jonjo O’Neill, finished a creditable third in a competitive handicap hurdle. He may not have won, but he shall at least have his final moment of glory in the crucible of the winners’ enclosure.

What happens next is a bit of a blur. Is it a dawning realization, or the sudden jolt of a cutting jibe from one of my friends, that makes me realise that at Sandown, unlike a lot of other courses, the parade ring and the winners’ enclosure are very different entities? I make a mad dash to where the knowing crowd have already assembled, cursing my stupidity and wondering whether I have missed the defining moment of a twenty year career.

Luckily, the horses have not yet entered the arena, and somehow I find myself somehow inside the winners’ enclosure itself, one of a select crowd who shall be witness to this extraordinary moment of both celebration and succession on a very close-up and personal level. There is Jonjo and JP, assorted journalists who I have admired over the years, and, AP’s wife Chanelle who is overcome with relief. Oh, and a tall and borderline-obese goon who is wafting around the place, not quite knowing what to do next.

This is where my lack of training, not to mention killer instinct, lets me down and I wander aimlessly soaking up the calm before the AP storm comes in, taking photos like some random tourist and waving at Clive and Simon in the cheap seats. The winner and possible successor to the crown, Richard Johnson aboard Brother Tedd arrives and disappears almost unnoticed.

Suddenly the green and gold colours are upon us and photographers swarm around a steaming horse to get the shot of the champ jumping off one last time. I am close in as the last photos and interview are concluded. To the last question AP offers no response – emotion has overcome him too and the career is over.

AP comes in for the last time

AP in the winners’ enclosure for the last time, flanked by JP McManus (left) and Jonjo O’Neill (right)

I say well done to Jonjo, perhaps the first time in racing history a top trainer has been congratulated for coming third in a race, but he takes it well and is all smiles. I’m standing by Chanelle with gathered children and family, and could easily have asked for a quick interview – what’s it like to get him back in one piece? But her face says it all, and I begin to feel that I am intruding on a personal moment, so I drift away.

There is no fairytale ending, but I don’t think one is needed. That’s not AP’s style anyway – his success was incredibly hard fought over two decades, mostly at the unglamourous tracks with unwilling horses, and in years to come if a new racegoer wants to know about AP McCoy you may as well show them winner number 3794 from the selling hurdle at Fakenham as his Grand National win or last ride at Sandown; they all count.