herald

Monday 18 December 2017

end of an era

Just 10 days after the 2014 Cheltenham Festival ended, the bulldozers were in and the racecourse that will be the centre of attention next week began a makeover that will eventually change the face of one of the most famous backdrops in the sporting world.

That project is ongoing and will be undoubtedly enhance the experience for those going through the turnstiles but for regulars of racing for any period over the last 20-odd-years or so, Gold Cup day next week will mark the end of an extraordinary era that will certainly leave a void in our sport.

This Cheltenham Festival promises to be special. It always does promise that. But in addition to all the ingredients that makes Cheltenham such a magical place year in, year out, this year will be the last ever chance we have to witness AP McCoy grace the biggest stage our sport and his profession have to offer.

Since announcing his retirement last month, McCoy's long goodbye roadshow has seen 'The Champ' clock up serious mileage but most importantly continue doing what he has made his name doing and that is riding winners.

McCoy's determination and addiction to riding winners has turned him into the man that we know and respect today but his drive and will to win will have the dial tipping out of the scale next week as he attempts to make his mark on what will be his final Cheltenham Festival as a jockey.

"When I get on a horse, I don't think about retirement," McCoy said. "I've never had it in my mind, to go out on a horse and think that I'm retiring.

"I want to go out and win, I want to beat the fella beside me. I know that in the next couple of months, I am going to get falls and some of them are going to be bad but it's no different than it has been for the last 20 years."

Crowds will flock to the Cotswolds for the atmosphere, the craic and, obviously, the Hurricane Flys, Faugheens, Sprinter Sacres and Don Cossacks of this world, but next week they'll all be keeping a close eye on McCoy. Watching him like hawks from their perch around the parade ring or the grandstand. Everyone is quickly realising that we are not going to have the opportunity to see this freak (a compliment!) for much longer and never again at the greatest race meeting on the planet.

Jessica Harrington's Jezki is one of his leading hopes in the championship races.

"I think Jezki is my best ride because, well, he's one of the shortest priced horses that I've got to ride. And purely because he's the reigning champion and, if you look back down through the last 20 years of the Champion Hurdle, a lot of the names that were involved in the finish will be involved the following year."

Victory in the Champion Hurdle would mean he'd go level with Tim Molony as the most successful jockey ever in the race, having previously won it on Make A Stand, Brave Inca and Binocular, but there's plenty of back-up for McCoy to make sure he signs out on a high.

Alongside Jezki in the Champion Hurdle, Mr Mole is a lively contender for the Queen Mother Champion Chase, At Fishers Cross may well be a long shot for the World Hurdle now that More Of That is out, but Irish Hennessy winner Carlingford Lough will be the horse that could raise the roof and the levels of emotion if he could win the Gold Cup on the final day.

And there'll be many more good rides across the 27 races with McCoy rarely expected to change out of those famous green and gold hoops.

But what next? You get the feeling he genuinely doesn't know himself.

"What am I going to do that's going to challenge me, I honestly don't know. I think that's the same with a lot of sportspeople, they struggle when they retire and I probably am not going to be any different. I'll just have to cope as best I can. I'm going to try and be happy playing golf and doing things I've never done before."

Punters too are asking themselves what they are going to do and who they'll be able to rely on, day in, day out, big meeting or small. Enjoy Cheltenham and savour AP's last.

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