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Page last updated at 14:45 GMT, Friday, 22 April 2011 15:45 UK

Tony McCoy and Richard Johnson share enduring rivalry

Tony McCoy and Richard Johnson
McCoy and Johnson have been doing battle for more than a decade

By Frank Keogh

For every champion there is a runner-up. Some have the burden of being a perpetual second because the person in front is a relentless winner.

Yet as Tony McCoy is crowned top jump jockey for the 16th year in a row at Sandown on Saturday, there will be little jealousy or resentment from Richard Johnson, the rider who has finished runner-up 13 times.

Aside from McCoy, the Englishman has secured more National Hunt winners - over 2,200 of them - than any rider in the history of horse racing.

The championship (determined by the number of victories in a season) has eluded him so far, largely because of his uniquely single-minded and determined rival.

Despite boasting 1,000 career winners more than his closest challenger, record-breaking McCoy wants to set marks that may never be beaten in his lifetime.

"What he's achieved has been amazing. He has completely rewritten what we thought was achievable in a season, and a career," Johnson tells me.

"Whether it's a Monday, a Saturday or a Festival, he's hungry and consistent every day.

"He rarely makes mistakes - you would struggle to think of one. He is a machine who turns out winners. He seems to get it right all the time.

"He has very few flaws in his riding and personality. What he has achieved is amazing, and great for the sport."

BBC Sports Personality of the Year McCoy, who turns 37 next month, is driven by an insatiable thirst for victory.

When he won his first championship in 1996, the Mark Morrison track Return of the Mack topped the UK singles chart, and there has been no looking back for McCoy.

The Northern Irishman has ridden more than 3,200 winners in his career and, privately, might have the once unthinkable figure of 4,000 as his next target.

His total of 289 wins in the 2002 season surpassed a record set by Flat jockey Sir Gordon Richards for the number of victories in one term (269) that had stood for half a century.

1994/95 - 74
1995/96 - 175
1996/97 - 189
1997/98 - 253
1998/99 - 186
1999/2000 - 245
2000/01 - 191
2001/02 - 289 (a British jumps record)
2002/03 - 256
2003/04 - 209
2004/05 - 200
2005/06 - 178
2006/07 - 184
2007/08 - 140
2008/09 - 186
2009/10 - 195
2010/11 - 218

And his dominance continues this season with 218 winners, with Johnson well adrift on 151.

McCoy has been relatively fortunate with injuries, and when they come along he fights to get back like no other.

Three years ago, he underwent kriotherapy - freezing at a temperature of -130C - to aid his return in time for the Cheltenham Festival.

"When I started out, Richard Dunwoody was at the top and I looked up to him because he set the benchmark," says McCoy.

"He was the best, had won more races than anyone else and it was pretty easy to think to yourself that's who you would like to beat.

"But you would be a fool to have thought you could be champion jockey as many times as I have been lucky enough to be."

McCoy, widely known by his initials AP (Anthony Peter), is a wittier, sharper individual than you might care to think at first glance.

He is a famously unhappy loser, who wants to ensure those chasing his records in the future "have some dark days" as they make sacrifices in the pursuit.

Standing at around 5ft 9in tall, he has been known to slim down for some rides to 10 stone, a stone-and-a-half below his natural weight, with a punishing diet of saunas and snatched snacks.

But he admits his three-year-old daughter Eve has softened his sometimes steely outlook.

"She has probably made me happier, easier to live with and a better person," he says.

"She has made my job so much easier as you don't dwell on things.

"No matter what you do or what racing has been on, when I come home at night, however it's gone, she's the same. She's probably the only person in the world who has me wrapped around her finger."

I've had a fantastic career and I'm never going to moan that AP has won so many times

Richard Johnson

As Eve gets bigger, her father edges closer to a date in three years' time when he will be 40, beyond which few National Hunt jockeys remain at the top.

While riders on the Flat, such as McCoy's hero Lester Piggott, can go on until their mid-50s, bone-crunching injuries take their toll on jump jockeys.

With an average of one fall every 16 races, McCoy and Johnson have gone down hundreds of times in their careers.

"I would be surprised to see myself riding after 40," concedes Johnson, who will turn 34 in July. "The main thing is how you feel in yourself. Injuries are a major factor in why people finish riding."

It would be wrong to think of Johnson as some kind of also-ran. He has won all four championship races at Cheltenham during his career, including the 2000 Gold Cup on Looks Like Trouble and the Champion Hurdle three years later with Rooster Booster.

Gaining an elusive jockeys' championship, however, remains his top priority.

"Probably the closest I got to AP was one season just after he left [trainer] Martin Pipe when he beat me by about 10 winners," he reflects.

"It gave me hope, although even 10 is a bit to make up when you know he's probably going to ride another three or four winners one day."

McCoy, helped first by the powerful backing of Pipe and later by owner JP McManus, may have seen Johnson off in the title race on all of those occasions, but the respect they have for each other as sportsmen and human beings is clear.

"AP is very good with the younger generation of jockeys. For them to be able to ride alongside him and chat with him is probably a dream come true," says Johnson.

"He is great with children waiting for autographs outside the weighing room or older racegoers. He's obviously very, very determined in a race, but he's an all-round nice fella.

"We are very, very lucky to have someone like him around who is such a pleasant man.

"The Sports Personality award showed people admire, respect and like him, which are three things you don't associate with all top sportspeople.

"I've had a fantastic career and I'm never going to moan that AP has won so many times. It's my own fault I haven't ridden more winners."

Tony McCoy, wife Chanelle and daughter Eve
Tony McCoy, wife Chanelle and daughter Eve

National Hunt racing is a thrilling, spectacular sport enjoyed by millions, but it is a dangerous game.

Two horses died in the Grand National and two of McCoy and Johnson's colleagues lie in hospital beds over the Easter weekend fighting to recover from serious injuries suffered in other races.

While the thoughts of the racing community remain with Peter Toole and Richard Hawkins, Saturday sees the end of one season with the next starting just 24 hours later.

There is little respite, but Sandown's final fixture marks the chance to honour jump racing's finest. And there is more than one winner in a sport where the risk and will to win creates a camaraderie that few others can boast.

"I've never taken drink or drugs in my life, and don't know what it does for most people, but this is the nearest thing I've had to a drug," says teetotal McCoy.

"It's what I've always lived for and gives me the greatest high.

"Nothing has ever given me more satisfaction. I'm a realist, but it is the worst thing trying to contemplate not riding. It is an unbearable thought."

McCoy will only stop when he can no longer be champion - a case of jumping before being pushed, as he puts it - and his rival remains quietly focused on being the man who will take his title.

Johnson says: "Every year on the Sunday when we all start off on zero, my main ambition is to be champion jockey.

"For me that is the best thing you can achieve and what I will be trying to do next season."

McCoy adds of his colleague: "I've known Richard Johnson longer than any of the other jockeys still riding and look up to him more than anyone else.

"Others could learn so much from his whole demeanour

"It's incredible to think he has ridden twice as many winners as someone like John Francome yet he is not champion jockey.

"To me, he is a champion. I look up to him."

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see also
Poker De Sivola wins at Sandown
23 Apr 11 |  Horse Racing
McCoy relives Grand National win
08 Apr 11 |  Horse Racing
McCoy passes 200 season winners
17 Mar 11 |  Horse Racing
McCoy races to Welsh National win
08 Jan 11 |  Horse Racing
McCoy wins on trail of 16th title
25 Apr 10 |  Horse Racing
Jockey McCoy picks up 15th title
24 Apr 10 |  Horse Racing

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