AP McCoy gets final chance to “Own” the Cheltenham Festival
Tony McCoy has had an incredibly illustrious career winning a Grand National, the Gold Cup twice and the Champion Hurdle three times amongst others, but has never managed to dominate the Cheltenham Festival. In the last five seasons, McCoy’s total of winners for the week has been: two, two, two, two and one. Yet these are numbers that say much more about the intensely competitive nature of the Festival than any fragility in a jockey who has ridden nearly 4,500 winners over the last two decades. This is a meeting where Jonjo O’Neill once finished as the leading jockey with a single winner. At seven of the last 13 Festivals, no jockey has ridden more than three winners. On that basis, McCoy’s five winners from 17 available races in 1998 could be seen as almost a match for Ruby Walsh’s remarkable seven victories from 22 events open to senior professionals in 2009.
There is a crucial point, one that can be overlooked, even by the jockeys themselves: there are both physical and physiological limits on the fastest time that any horse can run from A to B. A jockey can only help a horse to approach its best time as closely as possible in any given race, and at the Festival above all, even its very best will often not be good enough. The funny thing is that many a jockey for some reason feel, that even if they have been riding against the same bunch of horses against all year, some seem to think that because it was the Festival, their horses could go faster than they’d been going all season.
The best horseracing picks have McCoy, 14-1 to go out on a high as the week’s top jockey, and the professional tipsters have only one likely favourite in their book of rides. This owes as much to sentiment as to form, since Ned Buntline is McCoy’s probable ride in the Grand Annual Chase, the final race of the week, which has been renamed in his honour this year to mark his impending retirement. McCoy conceded on Monday that he will be “sad” to leave the Festival weighing room for the final time “because Cheltenham will be different for the rest of my life”.
According to some estimates there will be as much as £40m riding on McCoy, but then again no rider has left the stage like this, with the final contest of jump racing’s biggest meeting re-named in his honour and a jockey-cam fixed on every moment. Still, nobody should expect the Cheltenham race programme itself to offer AP any favours. It will fire him into the ground from fences and hurdles, deny him victories by half a length or a neck and remind us all why, despite his cosmic record, he has never been able to ‘own’ Cheltenham in the way a great Wimbledon champion ‘owns’ Centre Court