Sport

Interviewed: AP McCoy on what it takes to dominate a sport for decades

Posted by
Danielle Richardson
Published

As part of our 'Greatest'-themed 400th issue, ShortList meets the most iconic jockey that ever lived...

AP (or Tony) McCoy won his first Champion Jockey title in 1996. He then won it every single year until retiring last April.That’s 20 consecutive titles, to go alongside wins in the Grand National, Cheltenham Gold Cup, Queen Mother Champion Chase, plus the Grand Nationals of Wales, Scotland and Ireland – basically everything – and 4,348 career wins.

Some sporting titles can be disputed, but few would argue against McCoy being the greatest jockey that ever lived.

Back when you were racing, was there ever a time when you didn’t want to do it?

Only when I was injured. I went racing a few times when I was very sore. So, I’d get up in the morning and think I didn’t want to do it, but, I did it.

Why did you do it?

I wanted to be different. I wanted to do things that other people couldn’t do. I wanted to know that if anyone wanted to be champion jockey, they’d have to go through this, I wanted to make it difficult. I was very stubborn – I didn’t want my colleagues to look over and think, “How come he’s here?” But I also wanted the mental satisfaction for myself – it was kind of tortured. 

And each goal post that you reached?

Gone.

As soon as you got there?

Yeah, gone. I have to have something new all the time.

I wanted to be different. I wanted to do things that other people couldn’t do

When did that start? Do you remember your first win?

Yeah – but it took me a long time to get my second win – six to eight months. It was quite a slow-burner. But that made me appreciate it more when it did happen. At the same time, inwardly, I always believed.

You knew that you could do it?

Inwardly, I knew. I would never say it outwardly – I don’t mind saying it now, but even five years ago I would never have said it. Even when I was a kid I always believed. It’s hugely different having belief and having arrogance. I never had arrogance. However, even though I had that belief, I also lived most of my life in fear that it could all end tomorrow.

Do you think that your belief set you apart from other jockeys?

I had a good work ethic – I knew that I could always do better. Even though I’ve retired, I know that if I went back tomorrow I would know that I could do better. But I don’t have any regrets. I didn’t leave anything behind and I couldn’t have tried any harder. I know for a fact that I didn’t take any shortcuts, and I know for a fact that I couldn’t have done anything else.

You used to race every day – what kind of sacrifices did you have to make?

Oh, it was my life. For my first couple of years as Champion Jockey, it was great. I wouldn’t say I became a recluse, but I became more selfish. I became obsessed. You have no interest in the outside world, you live in your own little bubble. I wouldn’t say you don’t care about others, but as far as you’re concerned the whole world is all about you. It’s a terrible thing to say, but it happens to you.

Do you think it was necessary?

A lot of times I wonder did I enjoy it as much as I should have done? But then, I wouldn’t have done it if I didn’t enjoy it. So maybe it’s just what I like doing myself.

What’s going through your head when you’re racing?

Positioning.

So it’s all very practical?

Positioning is half the battle. With most sports, the difference comes down to instinct. You can do a lot of preparation and have a lot of attention to detail, but what it comes down to is a few seconds that make the difference between winning and losing. Preparing well makes that instinct easier, and makes it more natural. But I do think that the last part of sport is instinct, and that makes the difference between some people and others.

You’ve famously had many, many injuries. Have you ever been worried for your health?

I broke my back in 2008, and had no feeling in my legs. I went from being on the stretcher in the ambulance thinking, “I might not actually walk again”, and then getting to the hospital and the feeling coming back, and thinking, “How long until I can race again?” It was that quick. I was racing at Cheltenham Festival eight weeks after I broke my back – I had two metal plates between some of my vertebrae. And in some ways that was one of the races that I’m most proud of.

Were you not worried that you’d come back too soon and could do more damage?

No, I just knew I could do it. It’s mad, but I just thought, “I can do it.” It’s all a mind game. Sadly, I played most of the mind games with myself. 

It’s also been said that you can ‘think’ your way out of concussion – how?

I know it’s not really believable, but, statistically, the last time I was concussed
was 1997.

And you’ve bashed your head a lot since then?

I’ve bashed my head a lot since then. It comes down to instinct. It’s how you react – it’s whether you close your eyes for those 20 seconds and you end up gone, or you keep thinking “I’m not concussed” even after bashing your head really badly. There are head injuries you can’t help, but I do think it’s controllable to a point.

You struggled with making the decision to retire. Have you found anything to replace racing and your need to win?

No, nothing will ever replace that. I’ve accepted it, but I miss a lot of things about it. I miss my colleagues, and things like that.

Is there any part of you that’s relieved not to have that pressure any more?

Not at all. I did it because I knew it was the right thing to do. I knew I was doing it so people wouldn’t say, “Why aren’t you retiring?” I didn’t want to be one of those sports people who people ask why I’m still doing it. It’s too late when you start losing. I didn’t want to let that happen. I’d made my mind up five years earlier that this is what I was going to do.

I’m not sure which I like best – the feeling of winning, or knowing that I’ve beaten everyone else.

Shortlist logo

news straight to your inbox

Subscribe to our newsletter
Read our privacy policy

What was it that kept you so motivated for all those years?

I like beating everyone else. Nothing else. I like winning, and I like beating everyone else. That’s it. I’m not sure which I like best – the feeling of winning, or knowing that I’ve beaten everyone else.

Were the other jockeys fearful of you in the changing rooms before races?

No, it’s a very close group – everyone’s equal. I didn’t get treated any differently from the lad who’d just walked in. The ambulance was for me as much as it was for him.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given?

I’ve always had this motto: “When you speak, you’re only saying something you already know, but when you listen you’ll learn something new.” So I always try to listen. I’ve always thought I could learn something from everyone – I never felt in my life that I knew it all. I learn something every day.

So going back to what you said about not being arrogant and not having an ego…

Yeah. I always wanted to have an ego, but it just wouldn’t appear
for some reason. I think it was the ambulances that kept the ego away, and people visiting you in hospital. At that point, having an ego is not a good idea.

BEING AP In cinemas 23 November and available On Demand on 27 November and on Blu-Ray , DVD and Download on 30 November

[PHOTOGRAPHY: © PATCH DOLAN, REX FEATURES]