Anthony Wonke (2015)
The jumps jockey Tony (AP) McCoy is an exceptional sports champion. Being AP confirms that part of what makes him exceptional is a mindset verging on the pathological. This documentary covers McCoy’s last season in the saddle before his retirement in April 2015, a few days before his forty-first birthday. One of the fascinating things about Anthony Wonke’s film is that it also makes clear that McCoy is very well aware of what he’s like. As a champion jockey, he will be – to understate the case hugely – a tough act to follow. As a husband, he’s been hardly less tough to live with: this is one thing on which he and his heroically supportive wife, Chanelle, agree.
Born in County Antrim in 1974, McCoy was the top conditional rider in Britain for the 1994-95 national hunt season. A year later, after his first season as a professional, he was champion jockey. When he retired, he’d been champion twenty years running. (To put this in context, the previous record of consecutive years as champion jockey in British jump racing was seven.) He won two Cheltenham Gold Cups, three Champion Hurdles and virtually all the major hurdle and steeplechase prizes going – including, after many unsuccessful attempts, the Grand National at Aintree in 2010. Over the course of his career, he won a total of 4,348 races over jumps. It’s entirely characteristic of McCoy that he points out in Being AP that he’s also lost more races than anyone else. It is, nevertheless, the total of winners that, above all his other achievements, makes him unique in my experience of watching sport. This isn’t just because the number of wins is a record in national hunt racing. It’s also because, to the bitter end (‘bitter’ is the mot juste), riding the winner in any race, however supposedly minor, was a matter of life and death to McCoy.
It’s not unusual for a great champion, once they’ve repeatedly beaten their contemporaries and secured their place in history, to develop a more selective approach – concentrating their energies on the most prestigious and/or lucrative prizes in the sport. You might think there’s an added justification for taking things easier in McCoy’s sport because the succession of injuries that goes, almost inevitably, with longevity as a jump jockey must be demoralising, as well as physically abrasive. Anthony Wonke’s film starts with a litany of the bones, as well as the records, its protagonist has broken over the years. Yet AP’s competitiveness, in terms of both work rate and the need to win, remained undimmed. (There’s an almost unnerving mind-over-matter aspect to this: according to his wife, McCoy has more than once been able to postpone the effects of concussion until it’s a bit less inconvenient for him to succumb to them.) In fact, AP McCoy has kept upping the ante – in order, as he acknowledges in Being AP, to put his achievements further out of reach of future champions. Over the course of two decades – and, it seems, largely because of his extraordinary success – his ability to look on the dark side continued to intensify. At least now McCoy can derive some consolation: it odds on, he reckons, that he’ll be dead before anyone gets close to matching his sporting records.
Early on Being AP, various talking heads summarise McCoy’s greatness. This might be interesting enough to the uninitiated but racing fans are surely going to be the main audience for the film, and we’ve heard it all before. (We’d even seen the anatomical run-through of injuries, in greater detail, when McCoy appeared on Clare Balding’s show in April.) For a while, I wondered if Anthony Wonke was going to find much new to say or show about his subject but Being AP is one of those documentaries overtaken – and fortified – by events that occurred while the film was being made. (The Queen of Versailles and The Armstrong Lie are two other recent examples.) It seems Wonke intended to film interviews with McCoy and those close to him during the 2014-15 jumps season but he didn’t know it would be McCoy’s last season. Neither did Chanelle McCoy, or the man himself. In the 2001-02 season, he rode a total of 289 winners – a British horse racing record for most winners ridden by a jockey, jumps or flat, in a single season. (The record was previously held by Gordon Richards, who rode 269 winners on the flat in 1947.) McCoy set out to ride 300 winners in 2014-15: he was well on target before getting injured and being forced to spend enough time on the sidelines to put the triple century out of reach. It’s possible, of course, that McCoy, had he ridden 300 winners, would then immediately have called it a day but, if this was his intention, he’s still keeping it to himself. The evidence of Wonke’s film is that the ‘failure’ to achieve his 2014-15 target caused him to retire because, he says, it ‘broke my heart’. He still ended the season with 231 winners, his highest total since 2002-03 – but that means nothing to a man driven by the need to defeat being defeated.
We see how anxious his wife is for him to retire. She chips away at him – she thinks tactfully but her husband is primed to resist the slightest hint. In one pretty startling exchange, McCoy seems to imply he’s going to quit; it turns out he was only pretending and wanted to see how Chanelle would react. They go somewhere for lunch and the conversation turns to the longer-term future and the possibility of retirement. He can’t understand how this can happen when they’re meant to be having a relaxing meal out. Chanelle calmly but pointedly reminds him she can never broach the subject at home. There are tense moments there too. ‘It’s not all about you’, suggests Chanelle. ‘Since when?’ replies AP. While he’s sidelined with injury, she books a holiday for them abroad. He complains – so petulantly he nearly stamps his foot – that he doesn’t want to go. She cleverly points out that the sun will do him good, aid his recovery. This quietens him: you almost see the thought bubble ‘That means I can get back to race riding sooner!’ flash onto the screen above his head. You always wonder, watching a fly-on-the-wall documentary, how truthful the behaviour captured on camera is – but the McCoys’ conversations seem very real. (The couple also appears to have drawn a reasonable line in relation to the film’s coverage of their two young children, who are seen and heard but not much discussed.) Being AP is a compelling portrait of a marriage that I simply didn’t expect.
It’s at another meal – with Chanelle and his agent, Dave Roberts – that McCoy’s decision to retire is made. He will make the announcement once he’s ridden his two hundredth winner of the season. Ideally, that winner will carry the colours of J P McManus, with whom McCoy has a retainer, and be trained by Jonjo O’Neill, who has charge of most of McManus’s English-trained horses. In the event, McCoy is wearing McManus’s colours – green and gold hoops, white cap – but the double-century horse, Mr Mole, is trained by Paul Nicholls. McCoy breaks the news to the world via Channel 4’s Rishi Persad. Persad thereby gets more than he expected in the post-race interview with AP, as he and Mr Mole return to the Newbury winner’s enclosure after the Game Spirit Chase in February. Once McCoy has done the deed, he’s forced to reflect on its implications – and on quite how much he means to the racing world. He is into terra incognita. Anthony Wonke’s film is too – and Wonke, as a documentarian, is onto pure gold. Some of the racing coverage may irritate purists. There are clips from this year’s Ryanair Chase, in which McCoy rode his last Cheltenham Festival winner on Uxizandre, and Grand National, in which he finished fifth on Shuthefrontdoor (both horses owned by J P McManus). Anthony Wonke has assembled these clips to tell-the-story-of-the-race but a few of the clips are not in sequence. I was much less irritated by this kind of licence than I would normally be, though. By this stage, the human interest story had taken over Being AP.
The film demonstrates that McCoy’s gifts also include a way with words. His manner announces that he hasn’t the time to be ingratiating and an indifference to celebrity. But he comes up with some taking, self-deprecating soundbites (and he’s also alert to tabloid cliché). ‘Need is greed.’ ‘I’m a has-been – a retired sports personality’. ‘I’ve lived the dream – now I’ve woken up’. Those last two phrases are particularly interesting. A sporting has-been normally means someone who ill-advisedly carried on competing when they, unlike McCoy, were no longer capable of winning. As for waking up … this is the kind of film in which you really would like a ‘five years later’ postscript. Part of you feels it’ll be impossible for him to walk away from race-riding – that, without the stimulus of competition and fighting failure nearly every day of the year, he’ll wither and die. (He’s adamant that he doesn’t want to follow the path of many other top jockeys and become a trainer.) The elegiac tone of Andrew Phillips’s music for the film sometimes seems a bit much but death is a significant theme here. AP’s announcing his retirement in a few weeks’ time is rather like a judge pronouncing a death sentence. And McCoy, after twenty years of riding at twenty pounds under his ideal weight (he’s unusually tall for a jockey, even a jump jockey) looks like death warmed up. Yet this extraordinary, infuriating, admirable man is so determined that you wouldn’t bet against him winning the battle of life-after-riding, provided he’s scared enough of losing it. Six months on, he’s appearing occasionally as a pundit on Channel 4, on big race days. He’s put on a bit of weight and no longer resembles a death’s head in waiting – he’s still not the life and soul of the party but he seems OK. A few days after I watched Being AP, McCoy received a lifetime achievement award at the BBC Sports Personality of the Year show, held in his native Northern Ireland. He delivered what was widely judged an excellent, inspiring-to-youngsters acceptance speech. It also included a vintage, glass-more-than-half-empty McCoyism: ‘… it’s very prestigious, only with the lifetime award, you aren’t going to win any more …’
7 December 2015