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Imagine how Jamie Spencer, the 24-year-old with the choirboy’s face, felt as Kieren Fallon won the 1000 and 2000 Guineas this year on the Aidan O’Brien-trained Virginia Waters and Footstepsinthesand. After indifferent results in his one season as Ballydoyle’s top jockey, Spencer had walked out in February; and there was his successor snapping up the first two English Classics for Coolmore.
“Told you so. Send for a man to do a man’s job,” muttered the knockers, hindsight at full revs as they insisted Spencer should have won the 2000 Guineas in 2003 on Hawkwing and remembered how, with Spencer in the saddle, Powerscourt had been disqualified in the Arlington Million and messed up the Breeders Cup.
But now the modest and talented Spencer, whom many forget was Irish champion last year while at Coolmore, has driven a stake through the doubters’ hearts by becoming this season’s English champion jockey on his first season back. Not only has he demonstrated that he still has all the natural flair which saw him gain his first Irish Classic, on Tarascon for Tommy Stack, at only 17 but he has shown he can graft as well.
He calls his success “something out of my wildest dreams”, adding: “I had no contacts to start the year with, so anything was a bonus.” But it is work that fulfils dreams. Like the day he drove from Newmarket to Haydock, went on to evening racing at Carlisle, and only turned for home at 9.30. With four winners under his belt, he said, the journey home “felt like five minutes”. Spencer has ridden this year on 31 of the 34 Flat tracks, partnering winners for 65 different trainers.
First to put him up on his return was his friend David Loder, and Spencer, who values loyalty, was fiercely emotional the day he won the William Hill Sprint on Goodricke for Loder. He declares: “At the end of the day you should want to go through a brick wall for a trainer if your relationship is strong enough.”
True, there was some luck. First, Frankie Dettori, last year’s champion, was removed from the reckoning when he broke his collarbone. Then Robert Winston, leading at the time, suffered facial injuries in a fall and was out for the season. But the new champion was due some luck.
Spencer rode his first winner at Downpatrick when he was 15. A natural horseman, he has ridden National Hunt winners too, scoring at the Cheltenham Festival on Pissarro in 2002. Having been champion apprentice in Ireland in 1999, and encouraged by his mentor Barney Curley, he became Luca Cumani’s stable jockey in 2001. Cumani, who noted Spencer’s capacity for getting a horse to quieten down, described his other qualities as “good hands, good balance and a cool head”, adding: “He knows where the winning post is.”
Some, given the number of times Spencer found himself in the Stewards Room for whip and other riding offences, might have questioned the cool head. But most reckoned it was only a matter of time before Godolphin or Coolmore came knocking, and soon Coolmore did. What both sides forgot, perhaps, was that Christy Roche and Michael Kinane had had many years of experience before they faced the strain of showcasing one of the world’s great breeding operations. And with O’Brien having a comparatively lean year it simply didn’t go to plan.
Spencer decided to get out before the experience undermined his confidence. It was a big risk. Imagine the sporting obituaries now if he had flopped this season.
Instead, he has answered the critics the one way he really could, by taking the champion’s title. Nobody can fluke that.