“Pain is temporary, losing is permanent,” grumbles record-setting jump jockey Tony “A.P.” McCoy in “Being AP,” a fitfully insightful sports doc that’s as much about the trials of winning as the triumph. Following McCoy during his 20th and final year atop the horse-racing world — out of 21 seasons total, an incredible run — director Anthony Wonke finds a difficult figure whose obsession with winning explains both his dominance on the track and his pathology off it. Reading at times like slick hagiography and at others like the harrowing rehab story of an adrenaline addict, “Being AP” feels like the work of an official biographer who went a little bit rogue. It stands to play best in territories where McCoy is a household name, but the cable-ready package should be attractive to sports networks outside the U.K., too.
Though McCoy notched more than 4,000 wins in his workaday career, Stateside racing fans might not appreciate the enormity of his achievement until they see him in action. McCoy was a jockey in the National Hunt, a form of racing that requires riders to guides their horses over hurdles and other obstacles as they make their way around the track. And naturally, the horses sometimes get caught in the scrum or suffer a hitch in the timing and it’s the jockeys who pay the price, tumbling to the dirt and frequently getting trampled by their horse or a competitor’s. An early scene in “Being AP” runs down the dozens of injuries McCoy has sustained over the years: shattered ribs, punctured lungs, and breaks in his collarbone, his shoulder, his right arm, his sternum, and virtually every other area of his body. (It follows that concussions would also be a serious issue, but that avenue goes largely unexplored.)
McCoy’s decision to retire after pursuing his 20th year as the top jump jockey in the field came as a happy surprise to the filmmakers, who contrast his rigorous commitment to winning with his extreme reluctance to go quietly into that last good night. On the racing front, McCoy combines a veteran’s craftiness and feel for the horses with a high threshold for pain that keeps him performing where other athletes might take more time to heel. Those seemingly arbitrary record numbers — the 4,000-win mark, the mark for most winningest season — dangle in front of him like a carrot on a stick and he can’t stop himself from going after them. At home, his wife Chanelle worries over his short- and long-term health and his ability to help take care of their young son, but she also insists that the decision to leave the sport must come from him.
That doesn’t mean Chanelle has no opinion on the matter, however. In the doc’s most riveting scene, her raising of the issue over lunch gets an explosive response from McCoy, who’s so incensed by the suggestion of retirement that he can’t bring himself to eat. Such moments of dramatic candor are rare in “Being AP,” but even McCoy’s more chewed-over soundbites reveal how much the sport has consumed his life and his sense of self-worth. It’s a common phenomenon among elite athletes, who perhaps only reach the top of their game because their obsession with winning is all-consuming. But it also makes McCoy a surprisingly dull and withholding subject, because self-reflection doesn’t come naturally to him. He’s forever chasing that carrot on the stick.
“Being AP” excels, however, when it shows McCoy on the job. Compared to the sleek thoroughbreds that chase after the Triple Crown every year, a National Hunt race has the rush of a free-for-all, with the obstacles breaking up the field in ugly, dramatic tumbles. Wonke holds off on getting a full view of a race until McCoy’s career is heading down the backstretch, but it’s a powerful reminder of how much the jockey has risked everyday in his relentless quest for glory. There’s likely a more contentious documentary to be made about McCoy’s transition to life after the sport, but the doc pays proper homage to his accomplishments as an athlete.
To that end, cinematographers Tom Elliott, Neil Harvey, and Andrew Thompson lend the racing sequences a gripping immediacy and give the off-track footage with an appealing gloss. The lensing is so commercial, in fact, that the pic’s darker insights about McCoy’s character have the power of subterfuge.