An email conversation with Jamie Spencer: 'Nobody will be harder on you than you are yourself'

The prospects for Olympian Odyssey in the Derby; The art of riding the challenging course at Epsom; Why Ruby Walsh is the invisible man on a horse; The dangers of sticking a microphone in my face
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The Independent Online

It's only 12 days to the Vodafone Derby, the race every Flat jockey craves more than any other. You have had four rides so far, finishing fourth on Fracas last year and third on Moon Ballad in 2002. What are your chances this time? It looks like I'll be riding Olympian Odyssey, who has already been placed in a Classic. He was third in the 2,000 Guineas, but that's over a mile, so I suppose the question is whether he will have the stamina for a mile and a half at Epsom. We won't know until he tries. In the Guineas, we made the running and he was doing plenty in front. You need your horse to conserve his energy when stepping up in distance, so I would be looking to tuck him in. Behind other horses, I know he'll drop the bridle and relax. Epsom is ideal, really, because the first half-mile is uphill and that helps horses settle.

The hot favourite for the Derby is the unbeaten French-trained colt, Visindar. What do you make of him? He does look very classy, the way he just floats along. But then he has never really been tested the way he will be at Epsom. He has only run in smaller fields on flatter tracks over shorter distances. And the whole day is a big test for a horse. A lot of them lose the race before it starts. Moon Ballad did. Cantering to the start, he just wanted to run off as fast as he could. They have to take the whole experience in their stride if they are going to last home. Epsom is a very strange track - uphill, downhill, too sharp for horses without pace and too testing for horses without stamina. But that's why the Derby is such a complete test.

What's your idea of the ideal Epsom horse? The No 1 asset is that the horse has to be able to "travel". Obviously, he needs enough stamina to get a strongly run mile and a half. But the priority is that he travels smoothly through the race. A horse that keeps coming on and off the bridle makes life very hard for his jockey, because naturally your position round Epsom is vital. Luckily, Olympian Odyssey is a horse that travels, and he doesn't have a big extravagant action, which will help him deal with the hill. He's a very agile horse.

Last year you became champion jockey on the Flat in Britain for the first time. But the title is decided by quantity of winners, not quality and prize-money. What is your emphasis now when looking for rides? There's no point being champion unless it gets you fancied rides in the biggest races. This time last year, when I had just come back from Ireland, I was scrapping to get on anything and everything. I had a point to prove to myself, more than anything else. But now the phone is ringing for me. I'm lucky enough to be first in line for a lot of the best spare rides. I have a good relationship with three or four trainers, but they are pretty understanding when I want to go to another meeting. You do get a wobbly every now and then, but hopefully we can get over those.

You rewarded yourself for being champion by buying a plane. Is it paying its way? It's proving a massive help. Flexibility is vital during the summer, when you often need to ride at two meetings a day. Last year, whenever I hitched a lift, I had to build my plans round other people. Now they can work round me if they want a ride. But the biggest difference is that travel is nowhere near as tiring. I can have a long shower and cool off and still be home at a civilised time. Driving so many miles can really do your head in. If you're on the road and hit traffic, and you have good rides, you can be stressed for three hours. Will I make it or won't I? If you do that, you're mentally tired before you even start.

I know you have the right temperament for the attrition of a long season, that you take it day by day, week by week. But you have certainly made a flying start to your title defence. Do you think confidence in a jockey is self-fulfilling? No doubt about it. When you're riding fancied horses in nearly every race, your confidence gets sky-high. If you average 1.5 winners every 10 rides, you will never wait too long for a winner. Your riding becomes carefree, you do things on instinct. Conversely, if things are not going well, doors seem to close on you in a race. That's the way the ball bounces in this game. And the horse definitely knows. You give them confidence, you let them do their own thing. Look at Ruby Walsh over jumps. You never see him ask them at a fence, never see them standing off. He's the invisible man on a horse.

You and your wife, Emma, had a baby son during the winter. How many nappies have you changed? Two or three during the first couple of days. But I did put them on the right way round! And certainly fatherhood is a life-changing experience. During the birth, I felt so helpless, it was as though all my limbs had been amputated. Luckily, he has inherited my sleeping gene. He goes to bed at seven and doesn't wake until seven.

You recently joined the former champion Frankie Dettori in campaigning to raise the weights at which jockeys have to ride on the Flat. That caused sparks to fly within the Jockeys' Association, which also includes specialist lightweight riders. I think a lot of people missed the point. It's not going to change my life if the minimum weights are raised from 7st 12lb to 8st 4lb. It's the young lads coming in, who have to claim their allowance to get the chances, and they are so much taller nowadays. They're the ones whose bodies are getting hammered. There are handicaps at the moment with a weight range of 8st 4lb to 9st 4lb. Why shouldn't they be 8st 11lb to 9st 11lb? We need to keep this ball rolling, because I'm sure we can achieve something.

What's on your iPod? Over 1,000 songs, but my favourite listening is Coldplay. I just tend to doze travelling, but I'll listen to music in the gym - not that I have to spend too long in there. When you're riding all the time, you don't need much fitness work. But if I have a light weight looming, I'd rather work it off during the days beforehand. I can never lose more than a pound or two in the sauna.

Emma covers racing for Channel 4, so you know about media coverage from both sides of the fence. What are your feelings about criticism of jockeys? The other day I came in and was told that they had been giving me stick on the television for being too far off the pace. But they hadn't seen how I had been flattened after 100 yards. I was nearly over the fence, and went from fifth to nearly last place. Fair criticism goes with the territory. Obviously, jockeys are only human. Nobody makes a mistake on purpose. You know when you have got something wrong, and nobody will be harder on you than you are yourself. But sometimes it goes over the top, especially about middle-of-the-road fellows. I think top riders get away with mistakes more often. I know I've ridden bad races and not much has been said, and the same is true of Frankie, or Tony McCoy over jumps. But people have different ways of reading a race. Sometimes I think a rider should be kicking on and he's still just sitting there. But remember, it's all split-second decisions.

What is the best way to wind you up? Sometimes you ride a horse in a big race, you've been looking forward to it for weeks, and for whatever reason - the ground goes against you, say - the horse doesn't run its race. Not 30 seconds after you have hopped off someone will be sticking a microphone at you asking what went wrong. Often I won't even have had the chance to speak to the horse's trainer. That does rev me up. That is the only time I'll be rude, the only time I'll blank someone - or worse!

You had a rare day off yesterday. How do you spend your time when you're not riding? I just try to relax, though obviously I have to make a bit more of an effort now we have the baby. A trainer rang me during a day off recently and I admitted I'd rather be riding. I'd been carted off [from Newmarket] to Cambridge shopping and to Waitrose on the way home. It was like 10 days' riding rolled into one.

Tell me about a jockey you admire. I have never seen anyone with more will-power than Seamus Durack, the jump jockey. He has been off since last summer when he broke a leg for the third time. He said he never knew pain before. The first twice, it didn't hurt. This time he ended up with a foot stuck behind his head. The other jockey who fell at the same hurdle was sick when he saw Seamus. I went to visit him in hospital a few days later. If I'd had everything he has received, I'd be pushing a pen somewhere. No way would I even think of riding again. But he is nearly ready for his comeback now.

Jockeys spend minutes as rivals and hours as colleagues. How do you enjoy life in the weighing-room? Yes, you're enemies on the track but you have to just get on with that. There's a lot of fun in between. There is so much stick given out. Frankie's horses haven't been running well and Neil Callan has been telling him that he can always become his agent if he feels like retiring. If you have made the running and gone off too fast, you'll get back and find the clock is off the wall and hanging on your peg. There's no hiding place in there, whoever you are.

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