“It’s scary how quick these things go,” says Sir Anthony McCoy, reflecting on the fact it is 10 years to the day on Friday since he won the Grand National on Don’t Push It, widely regarded as the crowning achievement of his extraordinary career in the saddle. Now 45, the jockey who never really wanted to quit is five years into retirement and well established in a new career as a TV pundit.
Does it feel like a decade has passed? He laughs down the phone. “Some days, yeah. I woke up this morning, me back was sore. I thought, yeah, it does feel like 10 years ago.” The great man is lucky enough to have horses at home and a bit of land he can work on in this time of lockdown. The only thing he has driven for a fortnight is a JCB, which he is using to put in new drains and to improve his gallops. He sounds almost grateful to be taking a break for a bit of reminiscing.
The Grand National was the race that made AP wait, long after he had come to dominate jump racing by sheer force of will. A bit of back pain would be the least he would expect in the mornings back then, when it sometimes seemed he was held together by the silks he was wearing. But however battered he might look he could be relied on for another three winners at Taunton before driving to Sedgefield to do it again the next day. He was champion for an unbroken, unprecedented 20-year spell.
“I’ve won a few races nobody knows about,” he joked at the time. Anyone who followed jump racing knew exactly what he was achieving, and punters in particular loved his unquenchable thirst, believing he would never give up, even if he had 20 lengths to make from the fourth-last in a selling hurdle at Market Rasen.
But, in terms of his standing with the wider public, there was a nagging sense that his thousands of winners might not add up to a whole lot if he couldn’t do it on the one day each year when they were watching. “I was lucky enough to have done a lot of other things in racing,” he says. “I’ll always say the Gold Cup is the pinnacle of it, but if you tell the man in the street that you’re a jockey, they want to know if you’ve won the Grand National.
“I used to comfort myself, thinking, look at the lads: John Francome, Jonjo O’Neill, Peter Scudamore, Charlie Swan, Frank Berry – multiple champion jockeys who never won a National. I used to think every day: ‘Ah well, they didn’t win the National so I’m not in bad company, they’re better than I was.’ And there were a lot of lads that definitely weren’t as good as any of those that did win the National …”
Shoring up your self-confidence is important if you are to last as a professional athlete, so those rationalisations were absolutely necessary as the years rolled by and Aintree kept baring its teeth at McCoy. It took him six rides in the race before he completed the course and even that required him to remount Blowing Wind, who was balked by a loose horse at the 19th and dropped his jockey in the ditch.
Four years later, another loose horse carried Clan Royal off the course when he was leading at Becher’s Brook the second time round. That was McCoy’s 10th ride in the National. The next four years were not quite so traumatic but still fruitless. Oh, well. Some things just aren’t meant to be.
The 2010 race did not seem to hold particular promise. A few weeks beforehand, McCoy was mulling over a choice of four mounts and did not seem especially thrilled by any of them, though he was prepared to make allowances for Don’t Push It’s flop at the Cheltenham Festival.
“There were other Grand National mornings that I was more excited, like before I was riding Blowing Wind or Clan Royal or Butler’s Cabin. I’d genuinely thought they might win.” Don’t Push It had had his moments, even in defeat, like the 2006 novice chase when McCoy had told the owner JP McManus: “He’ll win today.” They were beaten three parts of a length by some beast called Denman, who hammered Kauto Star in the Gold Cup 16 months later.
Jonjo O’Neill, trainer of Don’t Push It, needed little prompting to reel off a list of the horse’s ailments, including “kissing spines and bad stifles”. McCoy described his mount as “mentally unstable”. They tried ear plugs as a means of keeping him calm during the buildup but he still sweated up at the start.
It was at about this point that David Casey, on Snowy Morning, noticed from a bookmaker’s board that Don’t Push It had halved in price from the morning 20-1 as casual punters lined up behind his famous rider. Casey pointed it out to McCoy and asked mischievously: “How are you going to explain getting beat on another Grand National favourite?” Relaxed and with no great expectations, McCoy joined in the joking. But when the tape went up a few minutes later it didn’t take long for things to become interesting.
“I genuinely thought, going out on the second circuit: ‘My God, this horse is loving this.’ I was thinking, well you’re not going to win if you get brought down, so keep him out of the way of everything else, try and get him round and if you’re there at the Canal Turn …
“I couldn’t believe how he turned there, really tight. From there, I thought, fuck, this horse could win.” The one still to beat was Black Apalachi, but that rival had helped force a strong pace from an early stage, a detail that had not escaped the hawk-eyed McCoy as he smuggled Don’t Push It into contention. The runner-up proved remarkably game but there was little doubt about the outcome for the last quarter-mile.
“There was a lot of relief and obviously a lot of satisfaction,” says McCoy, whose post-career status is undoubtedly higher because he finally conquered Aintree. To his way of thinking, he achieved much more in breaking Sir Gordon Richards’s 55-year-old record for winners in a season. “But it would never have led to people very kindly voting for me to win something like Sports Personality of the Year.
“That’s the difference. There were 4.8 million watching the virtual Grand National the other day. Only 1.2 million watched the Gold Cup, which is the best race of the year. What’s the world coming to? The Grand National is a Wimbledon, it’s an FA Cup, one of those marquee events that will always be more powerful than all the others.”