Alan King, on AP McCoy: 'We'll never see his like again.'
Yesterday afternoon, I was in tears. Not because all my fancies got beaten out of sight, but because a gentleman whose example I live by saw his dedication, hard work, belief, and refusal to give up pay off. The Champ finally, finally, ran his race.
The tears were tears of joy.
When I feel gloomy, or defeated, I ask myself: 'What would AP do?' The answer always is: ride another winner.
This Cheltenham is Tony McCoy's last. He'd had a few fancied runners, and they had disappointed. Even the famous McCoy drive could not lend their leaden feet wings. People were starting to get a faintly haunted look in their eyes: the terrible thought that McCoy might go home from his final festival winless hovered in the back of thousands of minds.
Uxizandre in the Ryanair was not the obvious candidate to pull the Champ out of trouble. He's a big, scopey, athletic sort of horse, and he's run well at Prestbury Park before, but his last two runs were rotten, and there was some suspicion that he might not quite get every yard of the searching two miles five. He was sent off at sixteen to one, very much Alan King's second string, as all eyes turned to the beautiful dark bay figure of his stable star, Balder Succes.
But the delightful Balder, a horse I have loved since he was a novice, ran no sort of race from the start, blundering about at the back with the equally out of sorts Ballycasey, who was busy bringing Ruby Walsh back to earth as only a thoroughbred can, whilst at the front AP had gone off at a furious clip, as if he thought his fella really wanted every inch of the trip and could run the rest ragged.
I turned to my brother, who had doubts about the extra furlong. 'He's certainly riding him as if he thinks he stays all day,' I said, a little seed of hope growing in my heart. My money was on the other way, but I'd been backing the Champ all week, hoping that I could shout him home, as if the very weight of my cash might push him over the winning line. (I try to resist magical thinking, but when I'm on a racecourse, my rational self runs off to join the circus.)
Dashing off in front and staying there is always difficult. Commentators call the tactic 'doing it the hard way', although in a big, hurly burly race, if you can make your own running at least you stay out of trouble and get a clear view of the fences.
Uxizandre was seeing his fences with x-ray specs. He was bounding, pounding, leaping for joy, as if every atom in his body was scintillating with health and joy, as if this hour on this day was the moment he'd been waiting for all his life.
The further he went, the higher he leapt, whilst the fast pace was forcing good horses in his wake into making amateurish blunders. Uxizandre did not touch a twig, whilst the birch went flying behind him. AP must have heard the sound of thumps and curses in his slipstream; under him, the only sound was the glorious pounding hooves of a horse who is meeting every fence just right.
At the third last, the hope, which I had pushed sternly down, barged its way to the front and started up a chorus of its own. 'Oh, come on AP,' I shouted, unable to contain myself. He couldn't go on galloping like that surely? Not at that relentless pace, up that unforgiving hill? Surely the pack would come and swallow him up and a faint anti-climax would fall from Cleeve Hill like soft British rain?
The doughty mare, Ma Filleule, gave it a good shot. She put her tough head down and got her sprinting shoes on, but it was not enough. It was not nearly enough. Uxizandre was damn well going to write his own moment in history, and he accelerated away, something heedless and fine and uncontaminated in him - that pure brilliance that only good thoroughbreds have, the old call of the herd, the will to win, to lead, to be the man, all combining at the right time to send him past the winning post in glorious isolation.
Sometimes, a sixteen to one winner is greeted with puzzled silence. Not this one. Four men and a dog had their beer money on him. But he was roared up the hill with the biggest shout of the meeting, as if he were a red-hot favourite, sixty thousand hearts expanding like flowers in springtime. 'Come on, AP,' hollered the crowd. 'Go, Champ,' I bawled, hardly able to believe my eyes.
Afterwards, half laughing, half crying, AP talked not of the winning, but of the thrill of riding a horse who could tank on and make such leaps.
Uxizandre's last two outings might have been dire, but from the way AP rode him you would never know. The Champ sent him off with all the confidence in the world, as if this was a the only horse in the country he wanted to ride. The bold Uxiandre responded, getting the mesage down the reins, stretching out his strong legs, dancing, romping, showing off, laughing at the rest.
'I'll miss riding horses like this, that jump like stags,' said AP.
People were running to the winner's enclosure, points of light shooting out of their eyes like stars. I made friends with the man standing next to me. 'At last,' he said, smiling with delight and relief. 'Nobody deserves it more.'
'We just love him. It's the best thing that ever happened,' Mrs McManus was telling the television microphones.
AP's wife, who has had to watch her husband smash up his indomitable body for more years than she probably would like to count, and somehow always manages to be serene and smiling and thoughtful, was beaming with joy.
'He was slightly melancholy this morning, but he'll be burning with happiness now,' she said. 'He just loves riding in the green and gold.'
Into the cauldron of joy, the good, genuine Uxizandre walked without pausing, his ears pricked, as if he knew he was taking his place in racing history. A lot of horses would have baulked at the noise and the hysteria, but not this proper fella. He hardly moved a muscle as the three cheers flew up into the spring air and his humans hugged and kissed each other about him. He posed for pictures like a seasoned star, breathing softly through his nostrils, accepting a kiss on the nose from one exuberant gent.
The whole McCoy family were gathered, brothers, sisters, the father. 'We're bursting with pride.' There were tears from the sisters. 'They say it comes from the dam's side,' said AP's father, wry and slightly overcome.
'Phenomenal,' said Alan King. 'The dedication, the hard work.'
And then, because it was still a working day, AP marched back into the weighing room, with his trademark quick walk, to get changed for the next race, as if it were just another day at the office, and the cheers died away, and people shook their heads, as if not quite certain they had just seen what they had seen.
As I headed for the pre-parade ring, to see the runners for the World Hurdle, wiping the tears from my cheeks, I turned to my brother. 'I can't believe that just happened,' I said. I smiled. I thought of how AP's example lives with me every single day. 'And we were there,' I said.
We were there.
I forgot my memory card, so could not capture the Glorious Moment on Kodachrome. In some ways, I'm glad I could not. I had to take the pictures with my human eyes, with no filter in the way.
Here's a picture from the second day, of another great gentleman. He'll never hit the headlines or fill the front page. But he's a good, honest horse, and I've always enjoyed watching him, and I love his dear freckled face. So, not AP for you, but Sire Collonges instead, a worthy understudy:
PS. There will be spelling mistakes in this. There were yesterday. I write these in a hurry at seven in the morning. Forgive the errors.