As AP McCoy prepares for his final Cheltenham Festival, trainer Noel Chance reveals in an exclusive interview the inside story behind the jockey’s first Gold Cup win in 1997 and the qualities that made a champion. Tom Richmond reports.
THE relationship between AP McCoy and Mr Mulligan, the white-faced steeplechaser who carried the still novice rider to a first Cheltenham Gold Cup victory in 1997, did not enjoy the most auspicious of starts.
Horse and rider parted company at the final fence of the prestigious King George VI Chase at Kempton, but trainer Noel Chance never forgets the apologetic jockey’s prediction: “He said ‘I’ll ride him in the Gold Cup and I swear that One Man will never beat us again’.”
They were prophetic words that were borne out just over 10 weeks later when Mr Mulligan, a horse as fragile as an antique in stature, galloped clear of his rivals up Cheltenham’s punishing final hill as the suspect stamina of One Man, the grey ridden by McCoy’s childhood hero Richard Dunwoody, ran out abruptly.
The spectacular success – McCoy had won the Champion Hurdle 48 hours earlier on Make A Stand – was a vindication of his own confidence which was already burning brightly, but it was also testament, says Chance, to his ability to seize the moment and win major races on unfashionable horses.
The winner of 30 races at the National Hunt Festival, jump racing’s Olympics, they are the qualities that saw McCoy, 40, win a second Gold Cup in 2012 on Jonjo O’Neill’s Synchronised following a never-say-die ride from the most unpromising of positions.
And it is why few would begrudge the 20-times champion jockey, and winner of more than 4,000 races, a third Gold Cup when he lines up in Friday’s blue riband race on Irish Hennessy winner Carlingford Lough.
The JP McManus-owned horse derives his name from one of the most spectacular sections of coastline in Northern Ireland, and where Chance is moving to, after retiring in 2013.
“Whatever is required on the day, he can do it and that is why you cannot rule out Carlingford Lough,” Chance told The Yorkshire Post in an exclusive interview.
“We went for him with Mr Mulligan because we wanted the same jockey to ride the horse in the King George and Gold Cup. Back then, it was talent – raw talent.
“In all probability, we could have gone for a rider with more experience but he had the raw talent. It was channelled in the right way. He did that all himself.”
Mr Mulligan had, in fact, come to prominence when winning the Grade Two Towton Novices Chase at Wetherby under a young conditional by the name of Richard Johnson who would become the only threat to McCoy’s dominance – and Chance’s future son-in-law.
Yet, after finishing a disappointing second in Cheltenham’s Sun Alliance Chase when a messy start put paid to the horse’s chances, Mr Mulligan was somewhat of a forgotten horse when lining up in the 1996 King George under McCoy.
“Richard was with ‘The Duke’ David Nicholson at the time, and had to go somewhere obscure to ride on Boxing Day. That’s why we ended up with McCoy.”
After a well-documented foot problem, Mr Mulligan was only 75 per cent for the King George as McCoy mounted the horse for the first time.
However, he showed his class with a fluent display of frontrunning before the ever popular One Man surged clear – Kempton was a track made for the grey trained by the late Gordon W Richards.
Six lengths down at the last, McCoy was assured of second until Mr Mulligan’s heavy fall. “Maybe I was a bit too keen, but I always had in my mind that perhaps One Man might stop,” said the rider, with the willpower so ingrained in his DNA.
It was to stand the champion jockey in good stead in the coming weeks when he rode Mr Mulligan in a piece of work which was so bad that he was sorely tempted to try and find a more promising ride for Cheltenham.
However, loyalty prevailed, not least because McCoy’s desire to be on the horses most likely to yield winners had already exasperated the then up-and-coming trainer Paul Nicholls.
“It was a nightmare. He rode upside a horse rated 79 and I said to the girl not to beat Mr Mulligan under any circumstances. We told a few white lies to the media and I went home dreading the call from McCoy that he would ride Cyborgo for Martin Pipe, but it never came.”
Nevertheless it was a different story the following week when McCoy exercised Mr Mulligan over fences at Lambourn. This, says Chance, was where the Gold Cup was won because the schooling session gave horse and rider some much-needed confidence – and it enabled the trainer to discuss Cheltenham tactics with his jockey.
Chance says McCoy has never shied away from such preparatory work and was amazed when he visited his yard one day, spotted a horse which had no distinctive markings, analysed its form and said it would win its next race. It did and no one possesses a more encyclopaedic knowledge of the form book than the 2010 BBC Sports Personality of the Year.
He also revealed how McCoy had an instinctive feel for a horse and told Charlie Swan, who was riding the aforementioned Cyborgo, at the start: “This fella of mine feels great. If he gets round, I won’t be beaten.”
McCoy was right. After the early pacesetter Dublin Flyer was pulled up, he took up the running at the 13th as Mr Mulligan’s jumping became more confident.
“McCoy didn’t really have to go for him until after the last when he was home and hosed,” added Chance. “It was text-book stuff.
“They said at the time that he was hard on horses with the whip but equally he could ride horses with hands of silk because of his exceptional talent. I knew then that it was the beginning of a very special career. He knows from one ride just what it takes to make a horse tick.”
Mr Mulligan, who did not even make the cut when AP McCoy named his top 10 racehorses this week, raced just two more times before being retired. He was put down in 1999 after being kicked by another horse.
“He was a wonderfully brave chaser,” said Chance, who won a second Gold Cup in 2000 when Looks Like Trouble prevailed for the aforementioned Johnson.
“Even though Richard is my son-in-law, it would be wonderful if McCoy bowed out with a third Gold Cup. He deserves it, and if anyone can make it happen, it is AP.”