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Never mind the horses battling nose to nose down finishing straights. This year’s contest between Jamie Spencer and Seb Sanders for the Flat-racing jockeys’ championship has been a thrill-a-minute and it will run right up to the line next month.
They began Friday level on 171 winners each, yet by 6pm Spencer had edged two ahead thanks to a double at Ayr but with races to come at Wolverhampton.
Sanders has partnered more than 1,000 horses this year, Spencer is nearing 900. They scour the country for rides – Sanders has ridden winners for 55 different stables – and Spencer has his own aircraft, while his rival employs a full-time driver to help in the quest.
For weeks they have been separated by no more than a handful of victories. First, one rides a treble and goes ahead. Then the other goes to an evening meeting and pulls it back as Spencer did with a 305/1-four-winner at Wolverhampton on Thursday.
The bookies change their minds, and prices, daily. Sanders has been priced as low as 2/5 to win the title for the first time, Spencer as low as 1/6 to regain it. At present Coral has Spencer at 2/5, Sanders at 7/4. The final result could turn on a fog-bound aircraft, an injury, a two-day suspension.
There has been nothing like their friendly but intense rivalry for a title that carries much prestige but no fancy prize since the desperate battle between Pat Eddery and Steve Cauthen in 1987 that left the pair shattered. Like Cauthen then, Spencer suggests this will be his last pitch for the crown.
He says: “The level of prizemoney at some meetings isn’t much incentive to travel everywhere just to be champion so I’m not looking at it as a priority for the future…you have to balance travel costs against the rewards.”
Spencer and Sanders are an intriguing contrast. Spencer, 27, is the angel-faced stylist, famous for his instinctive touch and last-gasp finishes. He wins some races others never would and, say his critics, loses some he should have won by exaggerating the waiting tactics.
His style has led to frequent suspensions and he is in constant danger of losing the title in the stewards room under the “totting-up” procedure for riding offences.
A freelance who left the Coolmore operation after a year, he rides many quality horses at top meetings and has won 13 Group races this year to Sanders’ one.
The power-packed, chunkier Sanders, 36, is renowned more for his strength and determination than for finesse. He is stable jockey to Sir Mark Prescott, and rides many more cheap horses at lesser meetings than Spencer.
Their respective career paths are reflected in that the prizemoney amassed by Spencer’s winners this season up until Saturday morning amounts to £1.95m, that for Sanders’ triumphs totals £802,439.
Some argue that the title should be decided by prizemoney won, but if that were the case then neither would be favourite. The big-race specialist Frankie Dettori, who no longer chases the jockeys’ title, is way ahead of them both on £2.35m. Dettori, who is first jockey to the free-spending Godolphin operation, has ridden only 77 winners so far this season.
The title, however, recognises not just contracts, connections and top-race flair but stamina and determination too. The champion should be a jockey who is seen regularly on everybody’s local track, as is the case this season with both Sanders and Spencer.
It is, however, an incomplete contest this year. Ryan Moore, champion last year, was too late getting going this season because of a broken elbow and will be favourite to regain his title next year. And six-times champion Kieren Fallon is, of course, banned from riding in Britain while he faces race-fixing charges, which he denies, at the Old Bailey.