By Tony Stafford
I love the old joke. An English tourist is lost while on a driving holiday in Ireland. He needs to get to a little place but drives for miles until at last he sees an old fellow by the side of the road. “Can you tell me how to get to Bally something?” he asks. The man stops and thinks for a while and then says: “You know, I wouldn’t start from here”.
That’s the point of history. For most of the many thousands of happy souls who made Sandown yesterday even more of an event than was expected, there was never anyone like A P McCoy, in racing or just about in anything else.
I’m in my 70th year and have had the luck of being around at the end of the Sir Gordon Richards era – at least his long-elusive Derby in the year, nay week, of the Queen’s Coronation in 1953; the Lester Piggott domination and its attendant fall from grace; the coming of Frankie Dettori and then and finally the domination of jump racing by McCoy.
When Sir Peter O’Sullevan was 70, 27 years ago, he had long been the major broadcaster of the sport, through his BBC work, but also as a perceptive, well-connected correspondent for the Daily Express. If you had asked him then who was the greatest jockey in racing history, Lester would have been the only possible answer.
True Richards, the one rider in history to have exceeded McCoy’s tally of titles, 26 to AP’s 20, also rode more winners (4,870) than either Piggott (4,493 plus 20-odd over jumps) or McCoy (4, 348 plus 9 on the Flat), but he went three of the years of his supremacy without coming out on top.
Lester’s 11 titles were almost incidental to a career that yielded nine Derby triumphs, with his handling of the tricky Epsom course rarely matched by any other rider, although I have reason to believe that six-times Champion Kieren Fallon came close – just watch his balance on Oath, the 1999 winner. Fallon was tough, too, winning four of his titles with scores of 200 or more, a figure never approached by Piggott.
Dettori, surprising to re-discover, managed just two titles before taking the Godolphin gold, but each of them came when winning in excess of 200, his 233 in 1992 – the year of McCoy’s initial win – being the biggest-ever score apart from Richards in a Flat season. The following year, when Dettori got to 211, his biggest rival Jason Weaver, now an admired presenter with Attheraces, also broke the 200 barrier, but he was destined never to win a championship.
Pat Eddery, who later matched Piggott’s 11 titles, got to 200 only once. Present champion, Richard Hughes, has also one 200-plus year on his record, and with his imminent retirement at the end of the year, racing will be the poorer as with McCoy.
Tony McCoy rode his first winner in Ireland as a 17-year-old. His first win here came two years later and after winning the conditionals’ title in that season, went straight on to the title proper the following campaign.
In the pre-McCoy era, Richard Dunwoody got close to the magic double-century, while Peter Scudamore, a forerunner for McCoy at the prolific Martin Pipe stable, once made 221 in a season.
Many of the top jockeys have family affiliations. Piggott’s grandfather Ernie rode the 1904 National winner, while father Keith trained one. Dettori’s father was champion jockey in Ireland and rode Classic winners here. Scudamore’s father Michael was a great jump jockey from the era of Fred Winter, Bill Rees, Dick Francis and co before enjoying a long career as a successful jumps trainer. Peter’s son Tom, following the family business model as the Pipe stable jockey, stands as one of the prime candidates for taking McCoy’s mantle, along with perennial runner-up Richard Johnson.
But just as McCoy came along to thwart the Crown Prince claims of Adrian Maguire – probably the best jockey never to win the British jumps title – thanks to McCoy’s arrival as Dunwoody’s successor, so they will now all be looking over their shoulders.
McCoy rode his first winner in England aged 19 and went on to win the conditional title that season as I’ve said earlier. Sandown yesterday might have been a celebration of an astonishing career, but for those looking for a portent for the future rather than a celebration of history, there was only one name to consider.
I saw several pony races a few years ago, and a constant theme was impressive wins for two sons of the trainer Peter Bowen. The elder, Sean rode his first winner under Rules at the end of last season, after arriving at the minimum age of 16 – Piggott was already a Derby rider at that age, having had his first winner at Haydock aged 12!
Twelve months on and young Master Bowen has already matched McCoy in one regard, his flurry of spring wins ensuring his defeat of Nico de Boinville, the skilled young partner of Gold Cup hero Coneygree in the conditionals’ competition.
But best of all were Sean’s two wins yesterday in the opening handicap hurdle and the Bet 365 Chase – the Whitbread to maybe you, certainly me and above all Sir Peter – in which he brought Just A Par from another parish to sweep past most of the field in the closing stages. He’s ridden 26 winners for dad, but already ten for Paul Nicholls and will no doubt give Sam Twiston-Davies something to think about next season.
The past few days must have been something of a strain for the unflappable and always approachable Andrew Cooper, who combines important roles at both Epsom and Sandown, but as ever the organisational aspect was immaculate. Epsom’s Wednesday meeting was raced on much faster ground than customary, so will need much less remedial work than normal in time for the first weekend in June.
There were several important personages on show, notably Dettori and Piggott as a guest of the track and in the paddock with John Gosden and Rachel Hood before Christophermarlowe’s victory in the “win and you’re in” Derby Trial, ridden by Dettori.
Seen in the owners’ room having a chat and a drink were John McCririck, now 75, but for many years the most recognisable figure from racing among the red-top public, and former Tote Chairman, Peter Jones. Peter recalled how in the pre-Tote days when he published an erudite tome called Trainers Record, he’d produced a book of brilliant action racing photos by star photographer Ed Byrne, to which I supplied the captions. Really? No I do remember. Peter, by a quirk of fate, is now the tipster – “that’s right every race, every day and I rate all the horses too” – for the Daily Express. Joy!
Dettori went on to Sandown on Friday where he rode four winners, adding Jack Hobbs to the possible Gosden Derby team with a ridiculously-easy success in a 10-furlong handicap. Wonder which of the pair Lester would have been scheming to get on had he still been riding.
Of course the link with so many of these people and events has been McCoy’s erstwhile – and who knows, almost certain future – employer, JP McManus. JP has been the prime mover and most generous contributor, along with its founder, behind the scenes of the Sir Peter O’Sullevan Charitable Trust, and he has long been close to Lester. Of all the visions of Sandown, none will be more lasting for me than the images of McManus and the look on his face that showed his admiration for his record-breaking jockey.