McGrath, Chris, The Independent (London, England)
Tony McCoy is the greatest jump jockey of his generation, but has never won the Grand National. Does it bother him? A great deal, he tells Chris McGrath as he prepares for this year's big race
Countdown to the Grand National
However vaguely, most of us like to imagine we have some idea of what makes these paragons tick - these supermen, the likes of Roger Federer or Tiger Woods, who bestride their different walks of sporting life. We think in terms of drive, intuition, discipline, as though it were all a matter of degree. But the most relentless champion in the history of jump racing soon reduces all that to hopeless froth.
"Tiger will never be happy, never get what he wants," Tony McCoy says. "And it's the same with riding, in a sense. You live in constant fear of failure. When you've got to the top of your profession, the only way it can go is for someone to come and knock you off it. There's no other way but down. So you live in that fear every day."
McCoy remains helplessly addicted to success. Yet the jockey who will next month collect his 13th consecutive title has always conducted himself with humility, decency and integrity. Perhaps this is because perfect fulfilment reveals itself as unattainable only when glimpsed close up. For Woods or Federer, after all, to reach mankind's limits is to be reminded of your own.
McCoy reckons that Michael Schumacher never had an ego - not, at any rate, in the coarse, preening sense most of us would understand. "Because Schumacher's perception was: 'If it means killing myself, and someone else - if that means him not beating me, then that's the way it's going to have to be.' If he's got to have an unmerciful crash, with someone else going with him, because he can't beat them, then I can totally see his point of view."
McCoy pauses, perhaps himself startled by the admission. "It is a sad way to think. That you would practically risk your life, rather than have someone else get past you. It doesn't enter [Schumacher's] head, the fact that he might die. It's the fact someone might beat him. It's a bigger fear, not winning, than killing yourself not letting someone else past.
"That's what keeps you from thinking you're good. That's what makes you want to try to get better all the time. In case someone else gets better. If it means letting them win, or maybe you can stop them getting past, and you might die: what's your option? You'll take the risk. If it means stopping them, fair enough. I don't mean that's the way you ride a racehorse. But I can see where he's coming from."
Nowhere is this paradox - the fragile margin between self-belief and desperation - expressed better for McCoy than Aintree. On Saturday, he hopes to redress the one, abiding omission in that epoch-making CV. Much as when Frankie Dettori finally nailed the Derby last summer, McCoy approaches the Grand National with a festering sense of unfinished business. A month short of his 34th birthday, he knows he will not get too many more chances. Yet at least two of his dozen previous attempts would seem to offer him total absolution.
Three years ago, Clan Royal was in a clear lead when brought down by a loose horse at Becher's second time. It was a defining Aintree moment, when the random forces that govern the National vitiated all skill, all planning. And it had been a similar story, four years previously, when only two horses got round without mishap. Again McCoy was thrown to the ground on the second circuit, remounting Blowing Wind for a distant third.
"Whether Clan Royal could have beaten Hedgehunter, I don't know," he admits. "It would have been between the two of them. But when Blowing Wind went past the stands with a circuit to go, I could not believe for one moment that this horse was not going to win the Grand National. And then that happens. The thing is that it's very hard to get on the right horse for a Grand National. …