THE BOY McCOY; TONY McCOY WEEK 'Wee Anthony' was always dedicated - even when it came to not going to school. Bitten by the racing bug, his now-legendary single-mindedness was immediately to the fore, as David Ashforth discovers Formative years of jumping's greatest jockey.
IN IRELAND, they call him Anthony; not Tony, nor 'AP.' Those are names people gave him in Britain. At home he was, and still is, Anthony McCoy.
Ireland is a famous school for jockeys, but County Antrim, in Northern Ireland, where McCoy grew up, is not. "I never thought he'd be a jockey," says Peadar McCoy, Anthony's father. "There were no jockeys about here, ever."
Peadar's family were not involved in racing but after his marriage to Claire, Peadar, a joiner, added three stables to the bungalow he had built in his home village of Moneyglass, and bought a mare called Fire Forest.
In 1976, aged two, Anthony sat on Fire Forest's daughter, Misclaire, the dam of Thumbs Up, winner of the 1993 County Hurdle.
That was all Anthony did, for his early passions were soccer and snooker. Later, he joined his elder sisters, Anne-Marie and Roisin, at Miss Kyle's riding school. "From the first day, Miss Kyle picked him out as having a great seat on a horse,"
Peadar remembers. "That was his first proper ride, and then he wanted a pony."
The pony Peadar got for him was dedicated to kicking, biting and bucking. Unlike the pony, Peadar was reluctant to bury his son, so exchanged it for a more cooperative version, called Chippy. Chippy quickly amassed a grand collection of gymkhana rosettes but Anthony soon abandoned him for something grander, at Billy Rock's.
Rock, who trained at Cullybackey, about ten miles from the McCoys, was a close friend of Peadar. "I always used to go to Billy's yard on Saturdays," says Peadar, "to watch the horses work. One Saturday, Anthony came with me and, soon after, Billy put him on a horse. After that, I couldn't get him to ride the pony any more."
Nor go to St Olcan's High School, in nearby Randalstown. The school bus stopped outside their house but the few yards from the front door to the bus door might as well have been the Irish Sea when Claire engaged in the morning ritual of trying to persuade Anthony to make the journey.
"Believe you me, it was a battle," says Claire, not a weak woman; far from it. "I forever had the attendance officers at the door because Anthony totally refused to go to school.
"I did get him to a parent-teachers' night once. Mr O'Grady, the headmaster, asked Anthony what he was going to be and Anthony mumbled, 'I'm going to be a jockey.' 'Well,' said Mr O'Grady, 'you'll need GCSEs if you're going to be a joiner.' 'I said a jockey,' Anthony mumbled again. 'Well,' said the headmaster, 'if Lester Piggott had got his maths GCSE he wouldn't be in prison now for getting his sums wrong on his tax return.'"
"Anthony was a lovely, quiet lad," says O'Grady, now in charge of St Patrick's College, Belfast. "Not a great attender. He devoted time to his first love, which was horses. Although he didn't take his exams, I believe he had a good education. I'm very proud of him."
For Anthony, the attractions of maths lessons could not compare with the lessons learned and the money earned with Rock, an accomplice in McCoy's increasing truancy. To make sure that his own attendance plans were not foiled, McCoy paid pounds 100 for a top-of-the-range bicycle, and cycled to Cullybackey.
Rock died in 2003, aged 57, but Yvonne, his wife, remembers McCoy's cycling exploits well. "I don't know how he did it," she says. "The roads were terrible, and so steep we could hardly get up them in a car, but 'Wee Anthony,' as Billy called him, was mad keen. He'd be the first in the yard in the morning, in the tack room for 6am, before the other lads had thought of getting out of bed." THE first horse McCoy rode was Wood Louse, chosen for his quietness, but soon Rock was happy to put 'Wee Anthony' up on anything.
"He was only about five foot tall, very small and very shy and quiet," says Yvonne. "He would sit at the kitchen table, hardly eat and only speak if you asked him something, but Billy said to me, 'This wee lad has great potential.
He's a great shape on a horse and so gutsy.' The other lads were 25 or 26 years old and this wee schoolboy rode better than them. Billy thought a lot of him."
Ian Ferguson, who trains from a nearby yard, was a friend of Rock.
"One day, this young, small kid appeared," Ferguson recalls, "and Billy told me he could ride strong horses that older, stronger riders couldn't cope with. He was very proud of Anthony."
McCoy became part of the team and in 1989, aged 15, he led Wood Louse in after Conor O'Dwyer won on him at Downpatrick. Later that summer, Rock told Peadar that, to get on, Anthony needed to join a bigger yard.
He arranged for McCoy to spend part of his school holiday at Jim Bolger's.
It would soon be the end of McCoy's bicycle rides to Cullybackey, but not the end of the association.
Remembering his roots WHEN Anthony McCoy signed up as an apprentice with Jim Bolger, Ian Ferguson, who knew what the unknown rider could do, started to use him.
"He was a very quiet lad but, in his riding, always very positive and confident," Ferguson remembers.
"Even as an apprentice, he seemed to have races sized up, and know the opposition, and he was very strong."
In 1994, aged 20, McCoy rode a quick double on Ferguson's Huncheon Chance, over hurdles at Down Royal and then on the Flat at Sligo. A month later, he rode Huncheon Chance on the Flat at Bellewstown, in a race in which he claimed 8lb.
"The owners liked a bet and, before Anthony left the paddock, he was made aware of it," says Ferguson. "He fought out a finish with Celibate, with John Egan on board, and won by a head. His strength won the race."
After moving to Britain, McCoy still occasionally rode for Ferguson and Rock. In 1995, and again the following year, he won at Perth on Rock's Tabu Lady. "We were all there,"
Yvonne Rock remembers, "and Billy was over the moon."
In November 2002, a few months before Rock succumbed to cancer, they travelled to Britain to see McCoy.
"It was brilliant," says Yvonne. "We stayed at Anthony's home and he was able to take Billy to see Jonjo O'Neill's yard and go racing at Newbury. It was a special time."
That year, McCoy dedicated his autobiography to Billy Rock, "who treated me like a man when I was a boy and who saw more in the boy than any other man." Since then, McCoy has regularly paid tribute to his early mentor.
After attending Rock's funeral, in April 2003, McCoy flew to Fairyhouse to ride in the Irish Grand National.
"We watched it on television," says Yvonne. "It was very sad, yet great.
Then, that September, me, my son Timothy and daughter Lynn, went to a breeders' awards gala to receive an award Billy had won. Suddenly, Anthony appeared to present it. I had no idea he was there. It made the night."
Last year, when Lynn got married, McCoy was there with his wife, Chanelle, and the Rock family watched him diligently on television.
"Sometimes," says Yvonne, "I can't believe that it's the Wee Anthony that used to sit here, hardly speaking."
"You couldn't have thought he'd have achieved what he has," says Ferguson. "The things he's done are phenomenal."
McCoy's success has sparked interest in racing where there was little before, in and around Moneyglass, but it has left his family remarkably untouched by his celebrity. His brother, Colm, lives in the bungalow his father built, while Anthony's parents live in the house that Peadar was brought up in, not grand but homely, with Roisin's hairdressing salon next door. NATURALLY open and friendly, their son's success has not changed Peadar and Claire. Peadar, quiet, affable and easy going, Claire loud, loquacious and laughing.
"He's very good to us, to every one of us," says Claire but, as Roisin says, "I suppose we take it for granted, but we are all very proud of him."
Last year Kelly, his youngest sister, stayed with Anthony. "Every evening, from when he came in the door until ten o'clock at night, he'd watch replays of his races," she says. "He'd even watch the ones he'd won to see if he could have ridden a better race.
He's still trying to improve."
That's a champion.
With Jim Bolger TWENTY years ago, Peadar and Claire McCoy drove their 15-year-old son, Anthony, to Jim Bolger's racing stables. Bolger's yard is hidden away in the lanes and hills on the borders of Carlow and Kilkenny, a very long way from Antrim.
Claire was heartbroken. "I knew he was going away," she says, "but I thought he'd come back. It was in the wilds and Anthony wasn't 16, but he went back." In 1990, McCoy signed on for a three-year apprenticeship.
"He looked angelic in those days,"
Bolger remembers, "and was able to ride at 7st 10lb when he started. As far as any young fellow of 16 can tick all the boxes, Anthony did. He had the cut of a jockey about him, was smart and had perfect manners.
"There was a fair bit of competition for rides here but he was certainly up there with Paul Carberry, and easier to teach. There weren't any negatives, he just needed experience. I must have thought a fair bit of him because, when he had his first ride, I made sure he was photographed."
That was at Phoenix Park on September 1 1990, when McCoy made his debut on Nordic Touch.
There was no sudden stardom. Bolger believed in the value of learning. "Pat Eddery had 70 rides before his first winner," he observes, "but, from the start, McCoy was a very confident and safe rider. He never succeeded in getting a horse kicked on the gallops and, along with Carberry and Paddy Brennan, he didn't get bucked off easily."
Bolger's confidence was reflected in McCoy's appearances riding work on the backs of Jet Ski Lady, the 1991 Oaks winner, and St Jovite, who won the 1992 Irish Derby and King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Diamond Stakes.
A few months earlier, on March 26 1992, McCoy rode his first winner, on Legal Steps, at Thurles. He was still only 17. The following January, he broke his left leg badly when Kly Green unseated him on the gallops.
When he returned, several months later, he was taller and heavier, his future clearly as a jump jockey. McCOY had his first success over hurdles at Gowran Park on April 20 1994, on Riszard, a horse that Mr A P O'Brien, the stable's amateur rider and future champion trainer, had ridden to victory in a bumper race the previous year.
"Anthony was tall, very slight and thin, and an unbelievable rider for his age," O'Brien remembers. "It was the way he sat and the balance he had.
He was very quiet and mannerly. For a young fellow, he was unbelievably dedicated and committed and very focused. He had a lot of wisdom for his age."
McCoy impressed everyone at the yard. "He was always very stylish and very determined," says Seamie Heffernan, another member of Bolger's talented team. "He was a very natural rider and a straightforward person."
"Anthony was a natural rider and horseman," says Ted Durcan, "with lovely hands and amazing balance and very brave. He made everything look easy."
McCoy gradually became more familiar with the winner's enclosure, and ambitious for success. "He was always a very straightforward fellow," says Bolger. "What you saw was what you got. The only thing hidden from me was his ambition. I probably saw only 25 per cent of that. By then, he was very marketable, and he was poached 12 months earlier than I'd have liked."
On July 15, 1994, McCoy, aged 20 and still claiming 7lb, won a hurdle race on Mollie Wootton at Kilbeggan.
It was his last winning ride before moving to England. Four days later, Toby Balding, alerted to McCoy's talent, met him at Wexford and offered him a job. When McCoy accepted, he had ridden in just over 100 races, won six on the Flat and seven over hurdles, and had yet to ride in a chase. When he did, on No Sir Rom at Galway on July 30, he fell.
"I wanted him to stay for another year," says Bolger. "He had broken his leg in a very soft fall and I was very concerned about that. We were getting him going and, if he had waited 12 months he'd have ridden a lot of winners in Ireland and we would have looked after him.
"As it turned out, he didn't have the bad fall I feared, but that doesn't mean my view was wrong. Now, my staff and I are Anthony's biggest fans, and he knows that."
'The other lads were 25 or 26 years old and this wee schoolboy rode better than them'
July 28, 1989: A young McCoy leads Wood Louse and Conor O'Dwyer into the Downpatrick winner's enclosure Pictures: HEALY RACING; September 1, 1990: McCoy with his father Peadar before his first ride, aboard Nordic Touch at Phoenix Park; March 26, 1992: A proud day as McCoy poses for a photo after riding his first winner, Legal Steps, at Thurles; Jim Bolger: "We wanted him to stay for another year"
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|Publication:||The Racing Post (London, England)|
|Date:||Jan 26, 2009|
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