Imagine, for a moment, that this is what your job involves.
You get up every morning at the crack of dawn. Some days, you eat a piece of toast, some days you do not. You may sit for an hour in a boiling hot bath to get the flesh off your bones. You may go out to the gallops, on a frigid November morning, and ride a piece of work on a raw novice, who does not yet know her job. You may school an old friend, or you may have your first sit on one of those young horses who feels like he might be one of the great ones, get the electric crack of talent and promise, and dream a dream of how high he might one day fly.
You get in a car and drive sometimes hundreds of miles. You arrive at the racecourse and perhaps allow yourself a cup of tea. You put on your gaudy silks and go out and get up on a half-ton flight animal. This may be a horse you know well. You might have educated her since she was a baby, showing her how to find a stride, how to contain her excitement, how to harness her wild herd instinct. You may have taught him balance, and maturity, and trust. You may have nurtured her will to win. He might be a best beloved, a loyal compadre, or she might be a horse you have never met in your wide life.
That horse could be a shining star, a top class athlete who glitters at the highest level. Or it could be a mundane selling plater, whose owners clubbed together and got it on the cheap, and hoped, against all the odds, that they might live the dream.
The horse might have been beautifully schooled, by a storied trainer, so that it knows its job better than you do. Or it might come from one of those now rare sorts who think that schooling at home is for sissies and that horses should learn their job out on the racetrack. And you think bitter thoughts as it puts its feet into the bottom of the open ditch.
You set off, at around thirty miles an hour. You face anything from nine flights of whippy hurdles to twenty-two fences of stiff birch, five foot high, with a twelve foot stretch. There are other horses around you. One may veer off course and cannon into you, squeeze you up the rails, do you out of running room. Loose horses are the great unknown unknown. Your fella may miss his stride; your brave girl may take a false step on the flat. The hot favourite you are riding might have got out of the wrong side of the bed that morning, and the crowd will boo and hiss as you labour into an undistinguished fourth and disgusted punters tear up their betting slips. Now, in the new age of the internet, people will break out the slanders, say that the race was fixed, that the bookies greased your palm, that you can’t ride a rocking horse. All those armchair jocks, who have never so much as sat on a fighting fit thoroughbred, will tell you exactly where you went wrong.
There are tactics to think of. Your bosom friends, the ones you laugh with and cry with and go on holiday with, are fierce competitors out there on the green track. If one of them can force the pace, or keep you off the rail, or suddenly kick for home off the last bend, leaving you flat-footed, they will. But even as they are trying to sink you, and you are trying to sink them, you love them still. Theirs are the first hands that are held out to you when you pass the finishing line. You might watch one of them go down, and lie still, and even as the giddy shouts of the racegoers die in your ears, you think – what happened to Ruby, is Dickie all right?
Some of the horses you love, and some you admire, and some you don’t especially get on with. You understand they are individuals, with characters and hopes and quirks and minds of their own. Some of them show pride when they win; some are shy of the crowd; some bask in the glory. You admire them all, because you know what it takes. Some of them don’t come home. You know, with the stern rational part of your mind, that when they go, they go quickly, with adrenaline stopping the pain. You know, better than anyone, that you can’t make them race if they don’t want to. You know that they lead a better life than half the horses in the land, that they get the incomparable feeling of being gloriously fit, cherished, honed, attended to. You know that a horse can die on the road, in the field, in the box. You know that there are poor, misunderstood, shut-down equines out there, whose twilight existence is worse than death. But all the same, where there was flashing speed, mighty power, a fighting heart and a bright eye, there is now nothing. You can never hear the names Synchronised or Darlan without regret.
For twenty years, you have lived with pain. You know that every fall could be your last. Your body is a battlefield, scarred and broken. Yours is one of the very few jobs in the world where you go out to work followed by an ambulance. Some of your friends and colleagues don’t come back. You will always be haunted by the day when you saw the clothes of JT McNamara hanging on his peg and you knew he would not be coming to get them.
On some dazzling days, they will roar you up the hill at Cheltenham and you will know elation as fierce as arrows to the heart. On other days, you will be riding some dear, slow old plug on a wet Friday at Fontwell in front of four men and a dog. You ride in the wind and the weather, the sleet and the murk. You win, you lose, you fall, you fail, and sometimes, when you think all is lost, you ask that great animal under you for one, impossible, galvanic effort and even though the tank is empty and the legs are tired, it somehow finds something more, giving you every last drop of courage and determination and sheer, bloody-minded refusal to be beat, and you flash past that cherished winning post, in front by a short head.
You drive home. Sometimes you have dinner, sometimes you do not. Tomorrow, you will get up in the indigo dawn, and do it all over again.
Congratulations. You are AP McCoy.
When I write that hard life down, I wonder for a moment why anyone would do that to themselves. The pain, the risk, the hunger, even, sometimes, the boredom, when you are stuck in traffic on your way back from a blank day at Huntingdon – where does the mental and physical strength to deal with all those come from? AP has said that winning is everything. It is what drives him, and he is one of the most driven humans I have ever seen. You can pick him out in a shifting field of jockeys, teeth gritted, body crouched in wild determination. But, oddly, I think he is not quite right. I think he really does it for love. When he won on Uxizandre, at his last ever Cheltenham Festival, he did not speak of the winning, although it was a big race at the greatest jumps meeting in the world. He spoke of the thrill of riding a horse like that, who tears off in front and jumps for fun. He spoke of the exhilaration of those mighty leaps, the joy of flying over that famous turf.
I understand that love. The thoroughbred is one of the most beautiful, graceful, brave and powerful creatures on this green earth. The moment you get on their backs, you can feel the purring power under the bonnet, the Aston Martin hum, the extraordinary result of three hundred years of breeding, going back to the day when Captain Byerley brought his Turk back from the wars and put him to stud. As well as being magnificent physical specimens, they are intelligent and kind and honest. I swear that some of them even have a sense of humour. Of course the winning is the thing, but it would mean nothing without the love.
There are many extraordinary things about AP McCoy, and they’ve all been written in the last few weeks. No sportsman or woman has remained an unbeaten champion for twenty years. Just think of that for a moment. Twenty years. It’s one of the hardest sports in the world, the most unpredictable, the most demanding. But, like clockwork, there is The Champ. His guts, his talent, his stoicism, his brilliance, his determination, his horsemanship, his never-say-die are beyond compare. But perhaps even more extraordinary is that in this keenly competitive discipline, there is not one person who has a bad word to say about him. He’s had the same agent for those twenty years, and they’ve never had an argument. He is, famously, the first person in the weighing room to offer to take someone to hospital. All the young jockeys look up to him, not just because he is so damn good at his job, but because he is a gentleman. He is tough as teak, and yet he is a gentle man. To be the best and to remain a proper human being is an achievement for the ages.
I love AP McCoy. I’ve never so much as shaken his hand, but I love him like he was a brother. When I’m feeling beaten and doleful, I ask myself ‘What would AP do?’ The answer always is: pick himself up and ride another winner.
It’s been a rare privilege to watch him, over these glory years. Today, he rides his last race and thousands of racing fans will salute him as he goes. We shall not see his like again.