By the time you read these words, AP McCoy will have been seen in competitive action on a racecourse for the final time. His legacy may be assured however his loss to the sport will only become apparent in the next few years. Which of his former colleagues will be able to step up to the plate and take racing’s profile forward, as he has done so successfully?
While McCoy will certainly miss the buzz of race-riding – most jockeys do, with the exception perhaps of John Francome – he won’t be sorry to see the back of endless hot baths, saunas and miniscule meals, dictated by a daily battle with the weighing scales, one that has been a central part of his life for two decades.
It hardly seems possible, or fair, for an elite sportsman to thrive in this situation
As a jump jockey, McCoy’s minimum riding weight hovered latterly around 10st 4lb, although it would take a pretty special horse, or race, for the Ulsterman to achieve that mark. Either way, it’s not much for a man who stands 5ft 10in tall. Flat jockey George Baker, by contrast, is 6ft and can ride at 9st. It hardly seems possible, or fair, for an elite sportsman to thrive in this situation.
Yet Baker, 32, is on an upward curve. Last year was his most profitable in the saddle, notching 162 winners. While lacking the support of a big stable or owner, the rider has made a success of his career, building a reputation with plenty of trainers as a go-to man when a decent opportunity arises.
Baker has come to terms with the fact that he will never be able to compete in every race on a card. He understands better than most the current struggles of his young Irish counterpart Joseph O’Brien, whose inability to make Flat weight has seen him switch, possibly temporarily, to ride over jumps.
“Joseph is a big guy; he is broader than Adam Kirby or me,” Baker tells Julian Muscat (The Big Interview, pages 45-48). “He doesn’t ride through the winter and I think that makes a big difference. When you stop riding for any length of time you try and lead a half-normal life, and Joseph is only 21. His weight won’t have stabilised, as mine has.
“He is obviously fighting it hard. I’ve seen him when he comes over and he’s pretty sensible. He’s not doing stupid things. He was probably trying to get his weight down nice and gradually, but initially it didn’t seem to be working.
“Joseph has the best motivation in the world with all those beautifully-bred horses to ride, but he is fighting nature, really.”
Whether or not too many professional jockeys are being asked an unfair question in their quest for winners is a moot point. Increasing the minimum riding weights would help the Bakers and O’Briens of this world, while denying opportunities to the naturally lighter riders. Any change to this mechanism would, naturally, result in winners and losers.
The conundrum of which jockeys to employ is one that may well occupy plenty of Lord Grimthorpe’s time this year. As Racing Manager to Khalid Abdullah, who has taken the decision not to replace James Doyle as retained rider, Grimthorpe oversees around 250 horses in training around the world at any one time.
Having raced the likes of Frankel and Kingman in recent seasons, the search is on to unearth the next superstar from Juddmonte’s homebred battalions, although Grimthorpe is taking nothing for granted.
“I always think when things are going well it’s like a big wave and you’ve got to ride it as long as you possibly can before it all comes crashing down,” he explains to Tim Richards.
“The circle of fortune in racing is inevitable and to have two such outstanding horses in the space of a couple of years was very spoiling.”
It may be folly to think that Khalid Abdullah can race another world-beater this season – but you’d be foolish to bet against it.