They cheered him on the way out of the weighing room. They clapped him into the paddock, and out again. They cheered him onto the course, down to the start, and round the first circuit. The fairytale didn’t happen, but it didn’t matter. In some ways, perhaps it was better that way. Racing is not really about fairy tales. It’s too real for that. He finished third each time, giving it all the old drive and verve and knuckle, but just, as on so many occasions, having a horse under him who wasn’t quite good enough on the day. Nobody really cared. The crowd went wild as he came back into the enclosure, and young Box Office, who had never heard such a noise in his life, lifted his dear, honest ears to the throng and must have thought he’d won the Gold Cup.
A seventeen-year-old conditional jockey called Sean Bowen won the first race in style. He was not even born when AP took his first championship. The future, with its flags flying, had arrived. Just in case anyone was in any doubt, Bowen won the big race too, the last great chase of the season, the one that will always be the Whitbread to me, the race that still recalls that glittering sunny day many years ago when the bright white figure of Desert Orchid danced over that emerald turf with his head held high, putting them all to the sword. McCoy’s last ever race was won by Richard Johnson, another great horseman and true gentleman, who has run second to him for almost all of those twenty years of triumph.
All the jockeys came out and formed a guard of honour, clapping the slender figure in the green and gold as he went past. When he was awarded his twentieth Champion Jockey trophy, he was hoisted up onto laughing shoulders, holding his cup aloft, a smile of achievement and regret on his wistful face. The cup was decommissioned on the spot. Nobody else has ever won it, and it was right that AP should take it home. They’ll make another one for next year.
Twitter went insane. Everyone, from the humblest punter to the greatest trainer, wanted to say #ThanksAP. At one point, I thought The Champ had broken the internet. Nick Luck, natty in very sharp suiting, led the Channel Four team, who captured the occasion with perfect pitch. Paul Nicholls and Nicky Henderson and Jonjo O’Neill and JP McManus and Ruby Walsh gave eloquent tributes. Everyone was crying. Chanelle McCoy, who, with quiet grace, has watched the man she loves risk his very life, was in tears; Richard Johnson was in tears; AP himself, the toughest competitor I ever saw, a man they carved out of granite and then threw away the mould, was in tears.
I, as you may imagine, was in pieces. At one point, a lone voice of dissent piped up. Don’t be so pathetic, said one cross gent on Twitter; he hasn’t died.
No, thank the racing angels, he has not died, although there was one dark day in an ambulance when they thought his heart was going to stop.
It did make me think, though, as I heard that rather British crossness, why there was this great outpouring. I’m not sure I ever saw it for any other sportsman in any other discipline. In some ways, I think it’s very simple. AP McCoy has taken being the best to unprecedented heights. He’s smashed every record, put every other competitor in the shade, set benchmarks which shall probably never be surpassed. That deserves applause. Along with that there is another very, very simple thing. It’s that everyone loves him. He’s a really, really nice man. Sure, people say he can be occasionally grumpy, and he admits to being obsessive, and he has said he had to teach himself to get better at losing because he really did not take it well in the early days. In recent interviews, with a wry grin, he has said his one regret is that he wished he had smiled more. But he is a proper human being and everyone likes him. He embodies quiet, unfashionable virtues – he is humble, and stoical, and industrious. He does not showboat, or save it for the big occasions. He’ll give a novice at Stratford the same ride he’ll give to a superstar at Cheltenham.
I thought too about the nature of racing. Great sporting stars are often unreachable. They perform in an arena, away from their public. They are paid huge salaries and live in gated mansions. Jockeys walk through the crowds on the racecourse, every day. If you get to the Festival early, as I do, you’ll run into Barry Geraghty or Ruby Walsh or Tom Scu in their overcoats, with their Racing Posts under their arms. There’s a democratic element in racing which you don’t see in other sports. You can be an ordinary owner, who has scrimped and saved to join a syndicate, and you can get AP McCoy up on your horse just as if you were a mighty tycoon.
The racing world itself is a tight world. They see each other a lot, because racing goes on every day. The champion trainer will bump into someone who has ten horses in training on a dour day at Plumpton, and might be beaten by her, too. They are levelled by the marvellous and mysterious nature of the thoroughbred. No matter how much money they pay for their equine stars, how many facilities they have, how many vets and physiotherapists and jumping coaches they employ, they are still prey to the stone fact that even the most brilliant horse will sometimes have a bad day. They all know the risks, the disappointments, the disasters. They know that what goes up will, literally and metaphorically, come down. That’s why they stood tall and saluted their Champ, because they know what he’s been through and they know what it takes.
Through this gaudy carnival, as the sun beamed down on Sandown, and it seemed that the whole racing tribe was united in love and admiration, stalked the ravishing thoroughbred beauties who make it all possible. They have come in their coats now spring is here, and they blossom and bloom with the sun on their backs. They have given joy to thousands since the fine weather of October, through the rain and mud and dreich of the hard winter months, and are still galloping in a bright April. Now, they will go out to grass for their summer holidays, and get to be just horses again, in a field.
AP has said it’s all about the horses. I love the horses, he has said; I could not do it without the horses. I’ve heard him state, with quiet indignation in his voice, when he’s been congratulated on one of those improbable, last-gasp victorious rides, ‘I don’t think the horse ever got the credit he deserved.’ In some ways, I suspect he would rather that it was the equine stars who got the laurel wreaths, not him. His great friend, Mick Fitzgerald, said yesterday, laughing: ‘I think he’s probably a bit embarrassed by all this.’
Watching AP, I thought that he was surprised, too. He is the professional’s professional, and he has had his head down for so long that I’m not sure he knew how much he was appreciated.
Yesterday, at last, he got to feel the love.
Here he is at Aintree, on Jezki, one of his last winning rides. I’m so glad I can say – I was there: