Even as a 12-year-old boy, I was hooked on racing. So you can imagine the excitement when my local track, Colwick Park in Nottingham, welcomed the TV cameras just before Christmas 1971 to capture Stan Mellor becoming the first jumps jockey ever to ride 1,000 winners.
Mellor had captured my imagination five years earlier when he somehow got the grey Stalbridge Colonist up to beat Arkle and spring a minor sensation in the Hennessy Gold Cup.
This time, as he steered another grey gelding, Ouzo, to victory, it was even bigger news, splashed on national TV and on the front pages of many papers.
However, vivid memories of the day merely serve to put into perspective, more than 43 years later, the reason racing reacted so passionately and emotionally when Tony McCoy dropped his retirement bombshell at Newbury last Saturday. For here was a jumps jockey who’d eaten 1,000 winners for breakfast. Here was a jumps jockey who’d amassed the astonishing total of more than 4.300 winners.
How appropriate it was that Mellor himself, now a frail 77 years of age, was at Newbury as one of the thousands who tried hard to digest that the end of The AP Era was upon us.
It very much turned into one of those days you could proudly tell everyone: “I was there”. My only regret was that Newbury didn’t have the wherewithal to make an official announcement, so we could start the salutes that are sure to fill McCoy’s two-month lap of honour between now and Aintree.
But there again, I didn’t have the wherewithal to ask Stan Mellor to sign my racecard. It was a day barely capable of allowing everything sink in. Especially with racing living up to its reputation as the master deliverer of ups and downs. No sooner had McCoy booted home the 200th winner of the season that presaged his announcement than he was on the deck, taking a crashing fall at the very first hurdle of the very next race!
Typical of the sport he has served so admirably over the years. But typical of the man too that as he trudged his way back to the weighing room, after his latest battering and bruising, McCoy was happy to chat to and sign autographs for racegoers keen to wish him all the best.
AP, of course, has endeared himself to the punting public ever since he emerged on the scene in the early 1990s as a raw, all-action youngster in the saddle for Martin Pipe. The impression he gave was that he would give 100%, whatever he was riding, wherever he found himself in a race, and they loved that in the betting shops.
As his career progressed, McCoy’s riding style and appreciation of race tactics and nuances matured considerably. He quickly allied finesse to force. He was as comfortable with a quiet, educational ride on a young Jonjo O’Neill/JP McManus horse as he had been on a Pipe front-runner.
In terms of aesthetics, there is an argument that legends of the past, such as John Francome and Richard Dunwoody, were as good, if not better, pilots. Similarly, many will insist that Ruby Walsh and Barry Geraghty are not inferior contemporaries. And it remains a mystery to this day why AP never got on with the great Denman.
But when it comes down to durability, longevity, consistency, dedication, determination and the sheer volume of statistics, AP is first past the post as the greatest. And of all the staggering statistics that have enveloped his career, the one that stands out is that in every season he has contested the jump jockeys’ championship as a full-blown professional, he has won it. Twenty unblemished years that have defied bone-crunching falls and gruelling, unrelenting schedules, not to mention a standard of horsemanship in opposition that has never been higher.
On a personal level, his stats pack was complete when he finally landed the Grand National in 2010. The relieved elation he felt that day on Don’t Push It transmitted itself into a concerted campaign within racing to anoint AP with the BBC Sports Personality of the Year award.
It worked. He romped it. Now, how nice it would be for him to be crowned a second time without the need to pester and persuade the public into voting.
Fanciful maybe. But in this sporting age of obscene deals and demands, financial felonies, drugs and bribery, diving and sledging, cheating and choking, allegations and accusations, which all remove the players and competitors to a seedy stratosphere unrelated to the ordinary lives of the viewers and spectators, there can be no purer sportsman than Anthony Peter McCoy, OBE.
Happy retirement, AP.