Every sport has a star, some have several and several have many. But few sports are fortunate to have true greats in their ranks, individuals that perform on another level, setting unparalleled standards and creating unreachable records. These sporting legends are often touched by genius; they have a prodigious will to win and are relentless in their pursuit of glory.
Roger Federer is without doubt one of the greatest tennis players of all-time. Technically gifted with an ice-cool temperament, he has been at the pinnacle of his sport for well over a decade, and has won more Grand Slams than any other male. In golf, there may never be another to touch the great Jack Nicklaus. He dominated the sport from the mid 60’s till the mid 70’s and won his final Masters title at the age of 46. He won more majors than any other golfer and set scoring records that may never be surpassed.
And then there was ‘The Greatest’ himself Muhammad Ali. In one of the most brutal of sports he remained at the top for well over a decade, becoming the face of the ‘noble art’. He sold his sport to the world with his astonishing victories inside the ropes and his infectious personality outside. A wonderfully talented fighter, he also had that inner steel that set him apart from the rest; the unbreakable spirit and determination to win no matter what.
On Saturday the fans of horse racing turned their attention to a jumps meeting at Newbury. A fixture that was eagerly anticipated for many reasons with several races set to excite and inform onlookers with one eye on the Cheltenham Festival fast approaching. Little did anyone know that their very own sporting legend was about to steal the headlines on a day of incredible drama.
Champion jockey AP McCoy was in the thick of it from the start. Partnering the John Ferguson trained Qewy, who cruised into contention in the opening novices’ hurdle, before scooting clear from the last in devastating fashion.
The Betfair Denman Chase saw a novice galloping his more seasoned opponents into the Newbury turf. Coneygree was exceptional from the drop of the flag, forcing the field into mistakes with a relentless front-running performance. Houblon Des Obeaux got as close as any, but by the time Richard Johnson had passed the line his willing mount had pulled seven lengths clear.
His trainer Mark Bradstock looks sure to keep the horse in the Gold Cup along with the RSA. A decision on which race to take-on will be left until later, but for now thoughts turned to enjoying the moment: “That was pretty cool, he jumps so well. It was quite an ask today on only his third run over fences, but he was something else. We will wait until Tuesday when we have to stump up £1,300 to keep him in the Gold Cup. Ultimately it will all be down to what the owners have to say, but one thing is for sure - I will sleep well tonight after a small celebration."
It seemed that Coneygree’s performance would take some topping, but attention then turned to the champion two mile chaser Sire De Grugy and his much anticipated return in the Game Spirit Chase. There was drama at the very start when McCoy’s mount Mr Mole attempted to take a turn as the tapes went down and lost ten lengths on the field. Soon back on terms, the race developed in earnest turning for home with Mr Mole, Uxizandre and Sire De Grugy virtually side by side.
The Moore’s star chaser decided to take a short-cut through the fourth last allowing Mr Mole to go three lengths clear. A more serious error at the third last saw Jamie Moore dumped onto the Newbury turf. AP took full advantage extending his lead to 15 lengths at the last where Uxizandre then parted company with Barry Geraghty leaving the champ to canter home. A race full of incident had finished with Paul Nicholls’ reformed chaser in total command, earning a ticket to the Champion Chase at Cheltenham.
As Moore and Geraghty walked in, the final twist in an extraordinary plot was unfolding. Channel 4’s Rishi Persad was in the process of congratulating the winning jockey on reaching 200 winners in a season for the umpteenth time, when AP uttered a word that many thought would never pass his lips. ‘Did he just say what I think he said?’ was probably the reaction of most onlookers as McCoy informed the viewers that he would be retiring at the end of the season.
The announcement was closely followed by a social media meltdown, along with interviews with the champs nearest and dearest. The greatest ever jockey was to hang up his breeches and everyone involved in the sport wanted the world to know just how incredible this man is.
Champion Trainer Paul Nicholls said: "He's been such a legend but you can't go on for ever. He's riding as well as he ever has so that's probably the right time to go out. He's been a great ambassador. Everyone will miss him, won't they?"
One of the men that helped McCoy become an all-time great was his former trainer Martin Pipe, who added: "He's been an absolute legend for horse racing and will never be surpassed again in anybody's lifetime."
His wife Chanelle said that he had made the decision two weeks earlier. "Some days he's at peace with it, some days he's a little bit sad," she said.
Meanwhile having had time to digest the shock news of his son’s pending retirement, McCoy senior spoke of his pride: “I had no idea he was going to do that. I was pleased but in another way I wasn't, I'm just hoping he stays straight for the rest of the season. I'm very proud and everything he's done has been above expectations.”
Those expectations had started when AP became an apprentice for Jim Bolger. He had his first win on-board Legal Steps in a flat race at Thurles on 26 March 1992 at the age of 17. He continued to grow through his teens and it became apparent that a career over the sticks was inevitable. Success in Ireland led to a move across the Irish Sea, and he began riding in England in 1994. In his first season, McCoy served as a conditional jockey for successful trainer Toby Balding, which culminated in winning the Conditional Jump Jockeys Title in 1995. The following season he became champion jockey for the first time.
McCoy had burst on the scene and soon attracted the attention of leading trainer Martin Pipe. They joined forces in 1997 and between them had a spell of total dominance. The greatest jockey set new standards that are sure to last for all-time. He became the fastest jockey to reach the 100 winner mark in the season of 2001. He beat the long standing record of legendary jockey Sir Gordon Richards' for the total number of winners ridden in a season, which has stood since 1947. That record now stands at 289 winners.
He smashed through 2000 winners, then 3000, and finally McCoy sealed his 4000th career win riding the Jonjo O'Neill trained Mountain Tunes for owner JP McManus at Towcester in 2013. In spite of wins in the biggest races on the jumps racing calendar, including the Cheltenham Gold Cup, Champion Hurdle, Queen Mother Champion Chase, and King George VI Chase, it was the Grand National which had eluded McCoy. On 10 April 2010 aboard Don't Push It, trained by Jonjo O'Neill and owned by J. P. McManus, he finally managed to win the world’s greatest steeplechase.
Yesterday in Ireland racing fans were able to celebrate with the riding legend that is Tony McCoy, when he lifted the Hennessy Gold Cup aboard Carlingford Lough. Again in the green and gold of McManus and this time for trainer John Kiely, McCoy produced the 4/1 chance with a perfectly timed challenge, getting the better of Foxrock in a thrilling finish.
After the race a thrilled ‘Champ’ said: "You can't fight fate and it was obviously meant to be the way things happened. Fair play to John Kiely as every day I've been on this horse he's produced the goods. JP and the family are here and my family are here too. It's amazing the people here at Leopardstown today. I have to be careful I don't get too emotional, it's not good for the image."
Typical of the man, that the day after announcing he is to retire he should win such a prestigious race in Ireland. He clearly loved every minute, soaking up the adoration from an enthusiastic crowd. They gave him the ovation he deserves knowing that such opportunities are now limited.
Sports fans know when they are in the presence of greatness. We may never see the like of this one again.