I know all about horse racing. I’ve read Jilly Cooper’s Riders and worn hats the size of satellite dishes to Ascot. What I do not know, is how to ride a horse. So when I’m invited to jockey bootcamp with 20-time champion jump jockey AP McCoy, it’s as if my life has been leading up to this moment.
I am given some suspiciously thin, bordering-on-translucent breeches, that my bottom threatens to burst through. I ask if there’s a bigger size, and I am given a larger pair, along with reassurances that these are not normal sizes, but ‘little people sizes’. I’m then taken to a shed where I clamber on a robot-horse whose mission is to throw me off. It’s a bit like being on a rodeo bull, except Robo-Horse jolts just forward and back, and I must hold a position of head down, bottom up.
When I finally get to sit down with McCoy, I draw on my knowledge of the racing world, as depicted in bonkbusters, and ask him if it’s true that everyone in racing is shagging each other. He says, ‘I’m married, so I literally don’t have sex anymore!’ This is disappointing. To cheer me up, he adds that he sees Jilly Cooper at the races and, ‘I think we could’ve had something.’ YOU STILL COULD! I say, in awe. ‘Yeah, possibly, but as I keep pointing out to everyone, I like my house too much to leave my wife!’
McCoy tells me he hasn’t a clue where Cooper gets her ideas. So where did he get his ideas for his racy thrillers, Taking the Fall and Narrowing the Field? McCoy says he wrote them after a friend of his wife said: ‘Everyone thinks you’re really boring!’ He tells me Taking the Fall has, ‘probably more sex in it than there was horses or jockeys,’ and the main character is, ‘more like the jockey I would really like to be. If you read my autobiography, it’s really f****** boring, whereas if you read this, you think, “he had much more fun!”‘
After retiring in 2015, McCoy put on two stone eating fried breakfasts every morning and a packet of chocolate digestives every night. I ask if he’s enjoying being more relaxed with his diet. ‘It has its moments,’ he says, but adds, ‘I’d still like to have the purpose and the pressure and the need to perform every day. The regime, the discipline – you miss those things, even though they’re not easy.’ It’s clear that McCoy’s work ethic has played a large part in his success. When I later ask him if he has any tips for anyone who’s inspired to ride, he says, ‘Work hard. It’s boring, but you get what you work for. Talent will get you up there for a day, it won’t keep you there.’
McCoy doesn’t drink, ‘I’ve got an addictive personality, and I’m a bit of a control freak.’ So what does he think about the new drinking rule at Cheltenham that limits punters to buying four drinks at a time? ‘It’s all about enjoying the sport, so it’s important that they don’t take that element of enjoyment away – they just have to police it properly. But four drinks per person – I think it’s going to be impossible to police that rule. Can’t see it happening myself.’
The restriction was brought in after two footballers were caught urinating into glasses, on the balcony of a private box, at Cheltenham last year. They then tipped the contents over the balcony. I can imagine Cooper’s characters behaving in a similar fashion – was it just high jinks? McCoy says, ‘Look, the fact that it was footballers, it gave them something to write about. If it had been a builder from up the road, there wouldn’t have been a story.’
The incident was compounded by two reality TV stars flashing their boobs from the footballers’ balcony. Bad etiquette? McCoy jokes, ‘Depends if you’re close enough to see them’. The PR who’s sitting in on the interview, has his third coronary in 10 minutes. He’s been interjecting repeatedly, suggesting sensible answers, and urging McCoy to say, ‘no comment’ as if I’ve ambushed him. Seemingly to appease the PR, McCoy adds, ‘I think that any woman who indecently reveals herself to shy blokes that are racing – it’s not appropriate.’
The PR settles back in his seat and I ask McCoy how he feels about the statue of him that has been erected at Cheltenham. But it turns out McCoy still wants to talk about tits. ‘You’re not allowed to say that it’s OK for girls to have their tits out, OK? There’s lapdancing clubs for that.’ The PR is apoplectic and McCoy clarifies that he is JOKING. Coming round to the bronze, McCoy says, ‘It’s a great honour, it’s the pinnacle jump racing course in the country and to have a statue of me there, is something I’m very proud about. Most people get one when they’re dead, so I feel very lucky that I’m still alive and I’m getting one. I don’t think I deserve it but it’s very nice.’
McCoy’s self-deprecating streak runs to his take on winning the BBC Sports Personality of the Year in 2010. When I ask why he thinks he’s the only jockey to ever win it, he says, ‘I don’t know, I was probably lucky that it wasn’t the year there was any Olympics.’ However, asked for his best memory of the Grand National he says, ‘When I won it – I don’t really care about anyone else.’
The PR is indicating that I should wrap it up, so I blurt out questions like a crazed quiz show host. Best and worst memories of Cheltenham? ‘My best was winning the Gold Cup on Synchronised and the worst was the year John Thomas McNamara sadly got horrifically badly injured, and was paralysed and has died since.’ How I can sound like I know my stuff when I’m watching a track load of horses run by? McCoy says to say: ‘He’s not a very good-looking jockey, I won’t be backing him.’
The PR is about to personally eject me from the room, but with Cheltenham and the Grand National coming up, I need to know how I can pick a winner. McCoy is not a betting man, ‘I like winning and I’m not sure with gambling that I’d always win.’ However, he’s happy to give his predictions. For Cheltenham, ‘I’d go for Unowhatimeanharry in the Stayers Hurdle and Outlander or More Of That in the Gold Cup.’ As for the Grand National, McCoy says Vieux Lion Rouge is favourite, ‘and if you’re looking for a horse at a big price, Carlingford Lough.’ He adds, ‘If I was still a jockey, I’d just say back the ones I ride.’