Racing: Jamie and me... Inside story of 2005 jockeys' championship

At the beginning of the year Chris McGrath became jockey's agent to Jamie Spencer, who had just walked out on one of racing's top jobs. At the time neither was confident the partnership would work but, against all the odds, Spencer went on to win the title. Here, McGrath explains how they did it
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The Independent Online

On the face of it, you would have said that the world was Jamie's oyster. In reality, the boy wonder was queasily aware that his confidence and reputation were in alarming decay.

Ballydoyle had endured a turgid season and Spencer, a rider of instinctive daring, had gradually become less and less certain. The final straw came at the Breeders' Cup in Dallas in October 2004 - the crucible of the international racing calendar - when he gave Powerscourt a wild ride, burning him up with an incautious dash to the front in the middle of the race.

The press could smell blood. Despite his bashful looks and demeanour, they decided that it had all come too easily to Spencer, and too quickly. He had emerged from nowhere to win the Irish 1,000 Guineas at 17, and for the next six years it was a case of when, and not if, he would land one of the élite jobs. Now it seemed as though his appointment at Ballydoyle, instead of fulfilling his talent, had unravelled it.

Yes, he was champion of Ireland. But it is no less true to say that Ian Bell came in second wicket down against Australia all summer - he too could be said to have reached the pinnacle. Instead both, fast-tracked after revealing exceptional early talent, ended their first big test stricken, as much pitied as censured.

Even so, it was Spencer himself who decided that something had to change. In January, he abruptly resolved to return to Britain for the approaching season and ride as a freelance. His decision caused a sensation. Many admired his dignified explanations - it did not matter how rich you are, he said, if you go to bed unhappy - but to most he was a broken reed. They saw his return as a retreat, an admission of defeat. The bookmakers dismissed him at 25-1 for the championship.

Spencer knew that he might well have turned things round at Ballydoyle. But while he still had self-belief, he was losing self-respect. So it was, come his wedding in February, that the speeches were full of jokes about how his bride, Emma, had got herself engaged to a man with one of the best jobs in racing, but married a man on the dole.

During the winter, Spencer had spent many hours with Angel Cordero, one of the great American riders of his day. Talking to Cordero reminded him why he loved riding horses, of what kind of career he wanted. In his own life, moreover, he was able to turn to the measured counsel of Barney Curley, the trainer and gambler who had taken him under his wing when he first arrived in Newmarket from Ireland. Spencer had lost his own father when he was just 12, and Curley is one of nature's patriarchs, always there to restore your bearings. But the decision Spencer made, in walking away from Ballydoyle, could ultimately be traced only to his own courage.

As part of his fresh start, he decided to hire a new agent. This required him to sack his brother-in-law, but Spencer had been more ruthless with himself.

And it was at this crossroads that our paths converged. After 15 years as a racing journalist, I had decided that I needed to complete my education in the sport with a stint at the coalface. I spent a year working for a trainer, discovering the hidden dimensions beneath the brief minutes that comprise the public career of a racehorse. I had no idea about the next stage in the syllabus until receiving a call from a mutual friend who put me in touch with Curley.

I agreed to meet him and Jamie in Newmarket, a godforsaken place in winter. Barney told me to park outside the cemetery, where they would meet me. I wondered briefly if I was to be blindfolded and taken to a secret location. Instead we went to a village pub, had a meal, and tried to get a flavour of each other. I babbled, charmed by Jamie, and Barney sat there watching and listening like the wise owl he is.

I told Jamie to look at the names ahead of him in the betting. How many of them could pretend to match his natural talent? At 24, he was still younger than almost all of them. It was a long time since any jockey had been able to blend as much experience and vigour. Even so, we agreed that 75 winners would represent a respectable return to Britain, and 100 a triumphant one.

The use of the word "agent" in conjunction with football or estate tends to give it an irredeemably squalid flavour. In racing, moreover, you might not be that surprised to learn that a bloodstock agent had managed to sell five quarter-shares in one horse. But the jockey's agent is usually more caddy than cad. His job is to get the best mounts for a man whose immersion in the frantic summer calendar requires him to ride seven days a week, more often than not at two meetings a day.

You have to be on call 24 hours a day from March to November. Your phone bills would pay for the construction of a small hospital. I began operating from a converted potting shed at the bottom of the garden, where I sat in solitude, pestering trainers on their mobiles, accompanied only by the sound of television commentaries and my stubble growing.

I had agreed to start working for Spencer from the beginning of the turf season, in late March. I sent out a card to over 300 trainers, and waited for the phone to ring. Nothing happened. I did get one offer of double glazing, and warm interest from the telecoms sector. Gradually, however, I began to link together the trainers who would support Spencer during a period when there was very little racing, and it is hard enough to get rides, never mind winners. Two trainers, David Evans and David Loder, proved stalwarts. Loder is a towering, cerebral, rather nasal patrician who trained for Sheikh Mohammed. Unfortunately, his horses were running terribly and by the end of the summer he had decided to pack up.

Evans is a blunt opportunist with an earring. He patches up cheap horses at his lair in the depths of Wales, and tries to find them races at all points of the compass. Luckily, he had his horses in bristling form for those early skirmishes.

I soon noticed that Jamie was riding with utter freedom. In the first week of the season he had three winners in an afternoon at Warwick, including one in a long-distance race. In the back straight I saw Jamie suddenly reach across and pinch another jockey, Steve Drowne, on the backside. This was not the behaviour of a man tormented by demons. Day after day, I watched him on bad horses in bad races at places like Folkestone, and look like Lester Piggott a neck down in the Derby.

Things began to snowball, especially after evening racing began in April. No jockey can be in two places at once, though plenty of agents will pretend otherwise. With no real ties, I could send Jamie anywhere, and usually did. I would pore over the entries, which are published five days before a meeting, and look for the one horse that gave him the best chance of a winner. I would then build what I could around that .

One Saturday in July, when the big meeting was at Sandown, I sent him to Haydock, specifically to be near Carlisle for the evening meeting. He rode a winner at Haydock, then made for the hills. He won the first four races at Carlisle and, as the light began to fade around 10 o'clock, drove back home to Newmarket. He will not retain his Tintin looks for long, if he does this year in, year out. But in 2005 he had a point to prove.

I did my best not to exhaust him, and tried to give him ample time to get from one meeting to another, but you cannot allow for the sort of traffic that threatened to thwart Jamie one afternoon as he dashed from York to Nottingham. Time was running out, and he was on the favourite in the first race. Jamie was sharing a car with another jockey, who looked in the mirror and laughingly suggested that he borrow the motorbike snaking through the gridlock. Jamie leapt out of the car and asked its driver to stop. "I don't think I gave him much choice," Jamie told me. "I more or less threw myself in front of him. I put on my riding helmet and jumped aboard. We went flat out, it was far more dangerous than any horse I rode. It must have been about 10 miles, and we got there with 30 seconds to spare."

Fortunately, he was frequently able to hitch a ride in Darryll Holland's plane, on which he had splashed out so that he could challenge for the championship. In the event, he had a wretched season, whereas Jamie was finding it increasingly difficult to pretend he could not win the title himself. The defending champion, Frankie Dettori, already seemed too far off the pace when breaking a collarbone in July.

As summer wore on it seemed that only Seb Sanders or Robert Winston could stop us. Then, one night in August, Winston broke his jaw in a ghastly fall at Ayr. Jamie had been to the apprentice school in Ireland with him and for a while the excitement had gone. After that, Sanders never managed to close the gap. One day he rode four winners, only for Jamie to do the same. I remember speaking to his agent at the end of the evening racing, when opportunities were beginning to dry up, and we agreed that we were all shattered.

Certainly Jamie was palpably relieved that the treadmill was slowing down. He had not seen much of Emma - albeit enough for them to expect their first baby in February - but in the autumn he felt as though his life was back under control. I noticed him riding with renewed vigour. In September, he rode a Group One winner for Loder, Goodricke in the Haydock Sprint Cup. He was exultant, largely because he craved one last big win for his friend, but also because there is no point being champion jockey if it does not qualify you to ride good horses in the best races.

The title is won by quantity, not quality, and Jamie rode more than a thousand horses during the season. At Doncaster last Saturday, the final day of the campaign, he rode his 163rd winner. Sanders finished on 142. Most champion jockeys rely on a big stable for their foundation, Jamie had ridden winners for 67 different trainers, and no more than 11 for any.

It is difficult to keep so many people happy all the time. Inevitably, there have been occasions when I have had to talk fast and think faster, but equally I have turned down odds-on favourites rather than let someone else down. Only one trainer has lost his temper with me, and he was being gnawed alive by the pressure of having the favourite in a big race the next day. I was trying to clarify his plans in a trivial race later in the week. "Look!" he shouted. "I don't care what you do. I can get a top rider any time I want. Jockeys are 10 a penny."

And that is exactly where he was wrong. Some races would always be won by the same horse, so long as its rider was competent. But a jockey like Jamie can sometimes win a race that would slip through the clutches of lesser riders. The best salesmen have to believe in their product, and evangelism in Jamie's cause has come very easily to me.

The defining moment had come in May, when he rode Im Spartacus in a Derby trial at Leopardstown. The favourite was one of the Ballydoyle horses he had surrendered to Kieren Fallon. Jamie trapped Fallon on the rail and then got the better of Michael Kinane in the finish. This was outrageous stuff from a man who now had to rely on horses like this one, from a tiny stable of broken-down misfits. the butterfly had finally emerged from its chrysalis.

How well have I got to know the new champion jockey? Well, of course I have, but it is more complex than that. Jamie can be quite remote: we talk several times a day, yet I doubt he knows how many children I have. It would perhaps be better, however, to describe him as detached. I have been intimate with his every frustration, every affront - and they are frequent, even for a champion - and the equable way he deals with them. In the saddle, however, he is always passionate, aflame.

To many eyes, last autumn he seemed a petrified talent. It has been a privilege, at close quarters, to see him again suffused with energy and inspiration, to see his lethal riding instincts restored and sharpened. Seldom is the narrative of redemption so cogent. Jamie does not get an extra penny for winning the title. That is precisely what it is - a title. In these laurels, however, he has found priceless vindication.

Spencer - in and out of the saddle

* 1980 Born 8 June in Co Tipperary, the son of Enid and George Spencer, who trained Winning Fair to win the 1963 Champion Hurdle.

* May 1996 Rides first winner as an apprentice at Downpatrick.

* 1998 Wins the Irish 1,000 Guineas on Tarascon when still an apprentice

* 1998 Leaves Ireland for Newmarket, where he joins the noted trainer/gambler Barney Curley. Rides first winner in Britain at Wolverhampton

* 2000 to 2002 Rides for Luca Cumani and partners the trainer's Endless Hall to victory in Singapore Cup and Gossamer in Irish 1,000 Guineas.

* 2003 Rides as second jockey to Godolphin and Ballydoyle

* 2004 First jockey at Ballydoyle when Europe's No 1 stable endures a poor year

* February 2005 marries Emma Ramsden, the daughter of the trainer Lynda and gambler Jack.

* March 2005 Quits as first jockey at Ballydoyle

* November 2005 wins Flat jockeys' championship

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