THE end of an era is nigh as the record-breaking AP McCoy lines up in his final Grand National. In fact this is more than an era. To racing, his achievements are comparable to the invention of the world wide web or man landing on the Moon.
To have seen this winning machine at close quarters can only be described as an immense honour and something that shall go to the grave with me. The man is a one-off. He has style and grace akin to Roger Federer, but the sheer determination and doggedness of Rafael Nadal, Cristiano Ronaldo, Lionel Messi, Lewis Hamilton, Sebastian Vettel Rory McIlroy, Tiger Woods and many more rolled into one.
All these names have shared the top spot while in direct competition with each other...AP McCoy, known as ‘Champ’ in the weighing room, has been champion for 20 successive years. That’s two complete decades. We shall never see his like again – multiple bone breaks and multiple records broken year after year.
I’d like to share with you a bit of my side of the story, perhaps a little bit that the public wouldn’t be privy to. Having moved from Yorkshire to the South in 2007 to progress my career, I turned to AP for advice, although at this stage I didn’t really know him massively well.
He still took the time to help, setting me up with an agent and a good job with the trainer Oliver Sherwood which was successful until I was badly injured two years later.
Living near him, and always keen on sharing a journey to work (carbon emissions), I would often jump in with him and his driver Arnie. I’ve never seen anyone who can sleep like he does. He’d put his head down on a barbed wire fence and still drift off. Not a lot said on the way to the races but, win, lose or draw, we’d have a little sing to the tunes on the radio and a laugh at the stories been told in the weighing room/sauna that day.
There is a bit of a false facade that the Champ is “grumpy” and “miserable”, but no airs and graces can be afforded in this game.
Whenever anyone has wanted an autograph, or a picture, it wasn’t a bother. You’d hear him doing interviews on the phone all the time. There was even an unauthorised book published on AP – he didn’t receive any royalties but he still signed copies. He didn’t want to disappoint anyone.
Don’t Push It winning the National in 2010 was particularly poignant to me. Not only did AP deserve to win the race, but I had been out with a nasty head injury since the preceding August.
As I stood watching the TV, I gradually found myself screaming him on turning for home. When they crossed the line, I broke down into floods of tears. It was the first emotion I’d shown in months. I’d resigned myself to never being able to ride again, but AP crossing the line ignited something in me like the flick of a switch.
I’d seen the continued disappointment on his face year after year for not winning the golden jewel, the one race that had eluded him for so long and you’d see the odd cheap shot in the media about it, but all of a sudden the world had been lifted and the monkey was off his back! And my hunger had returned… I was inspired.
Let me tell you that there’s no more gut-wrenching feeling in the weighing room than when a fence has to be bypassed on the next circuit because the screens are around a stricken jockey.
This happened a couple of years ago at Cheltenham’s April meeting when AP got fired off into the ground, and was duly kicked and stood on, which is par for the course in an 18 runner handicap.
This time he wasn’t so lucky. He was brought back to the medical room which is (normally joined to the weighing room) but security prevented anyone from entering... that normally signals something serious. When you’re seeing the medical team rushing around, a silence flows eerily through the place. I went to take his phone in to him as an excuse. He was lying on the bed, writhing in agony, sucking the life out of the Entonox (pain relief gas) gasping for breath in between, with his colours and body protector cut open. Ouch, his sternum (breast bone) was popping out of his chest like an alien.
He was taken to Gloucester Hospital and I went there with Ruby Walsh after racing, at the request of AP’s wife Chanelle who was out of the country on business. She wanted us to make sure that he stayed in hospital for the night.
While we are there, one of the nurses told him that it only looks like he’s only done a rib. He’s strapped to a stretcher board on a bed: “A rib! **** it, right I’m outta here, they’ll think I’ve gone soft, you lads will laugh at me.”
As he gasped the life out of a new bottle of Entonox, Ruby told him in no uncertain terms not to be so daft, as his sternum was popping out at 45 degrees.
Despite being in intensive care for a week with a broken sternum, punctured lung and multiple broken ribs, he was back riding winners after four weeks.
I can honestly speak for all of my colleagues that it has been a privilege to work alongside with one of the world’s finest athletes.
We’ll all miss watching the impossible been made possible. Champ, I thank you from all of us!
Dominic Elsworth is a National Hunt rider from Guiseley and rode Sue and Harvey Smith’s Mister McGoldrick to victory at Cheltenham in 2008.