Racing: Just two left standing in race for jockeys' title

It may be wrong to suggest that this year's champion jockey will have won his title by default, but there has been an inexorable whittling down of the contenders, rather like the 10 little Indians. "Five little jockey boys, of winners wanting more. One went to Ireland, and then there were four. Four little jockey boys, hope to say 'It's me!'. One fell off at Sandown, then there were three. Three little jockey boys, hope to say 'Not you!'. One hurt himself at Ayr, then there were two.

Jamie Spencer, on 97 winners and Seb Sanders, on 89, lead the field. And barring accidents - and touching all available wood on their behalf as they pursue an occupation demonstrably fraught with risk on a daily basis - the battle for supremacy now seems to be set as a head-to-head.

Of those who might have been contenders, six-times king Kieren Fallon moved to Ballydoyle at the start of the year, the reigning champion, Frankie Dettori, broke a collarbone last month and, having exacerbated the injury swimming, is still off games, and Robert Winston, who still heads the table on 98, broke his jaw in a fall at Ayr on Saturday.

Yesterday, Spencer drew a blank at Bath as Sanders took a day off. The chase carries on today; Spencer, with 662 rides now under his belt for the campaign, is at Yarmouth and Sandown and Sanders, who has been legged-up 622 times, at Beverley and Hamilton.

One of the two protagonists is likely to be at the top of his profession come the cut-off date of 5 November but the two rivals have trodden very different roads on the way.

Spencer, 25, was brought up on a farm at Ballynonty, in Co Tipperary, whence his late father, George, sent out Winning Fair to win the 1963 Champion Hurdle. Next door was trainer Edward O'Grady, who first put him up on a racehorse, riding exercise at home.

And the tiny wee lad had something special about him from the start. "He must have been maybe 10 when he started coming to us to ride," O'Grady recalled yesterday. "He was always very quiet, but not with the horses. I can remember that he spoke to them all the time, keeping up this constant soothing chat, patting them on the neck, keeping a long rein.

"His behaviour with the horses was much older than his years. He had a wonderful rapport with them, and whatever horse he was riding he was trying to get into its psyche, on a one-to-one relationship. He wanted to become part of that horse. It was distinctly unusual in one so young."

After the Irish pony-racing circuit and an apprenticeship with Liam Browne, Spencer came to Britain as the rising star and joined Luca Cumani. Things turned famously sour, though, last year. Having been headhunted by Aidan O'Brien and the Coolmore axis, he lasted just one season in the job, after well-documented apparent errors of judgement on the track and clashes of personality behind the scenes. It was enough to shake anyone's confidence.

"Since he's become a successful jockey," added O'Grady, "what he has done is to progress that innate gift. And despite his quiet ways, he has always been tremendously ambitious. He has always had the courage of his convictions; he never wanted to do anything but ride winners and the fact that he has bounced back to where he is must be testament to his determination."

At the age when Spencer was sweet-talking O'Grady's big chasers up the Killeens gallops, Sanders had hardly seen, let alone sat on, a horse. The son of a plumber from Tamworth, Staffordshire, he started hanging round the stables of his local trainer, Brian McMahon, as a schoolboy.

"I can remember the first horse he rode," said McMahon. "We were walking one round on the lunge with the tack on. I said 'Go and find that little lad, he can sit on it'.

"By the next week he was trotting round on it. He was as natural as you'd see, for one who had never ridden as a child. He had the build for it, good balance, and good hands, and soon became quite competent."

Sanders also had the brain. "Once they start riding in races you can soon tell know whether they've got it as jockeys, whether they've got the tactical nous. He had.

"And he was a willing little lad too, who would never shirk anything. He'd take criticism, hold his tongue, and listen. Which is probably one of the reasons why he's got on so well."

Sanders rode his first winner for McMahon, but became champion apprentice of 1995 with Reg Akehurst. He was then talent-spotted by Sir Mark Prescott, for whom he rode as number two until taking the top job last year on George Duffield's retirement. Few dramas, but the furrow he ploughed was steady enough for only Fallon and Dettori to top his total.

Some are born to jockeyship, some acquire it. Both seem equally effective.

HYPERION'S SELECTIONS FOR

TODAY'S OTHER MEETINGS

BEVERLEY: 2.10 Bailieborough 2.40 Lightning Affair 3.10 Artie 3.40 Night Sight 4.10 Oblique 4.40 Bold Eagle 5.10 Majestic Vision

HAMILTON: 6.00 Mystic Man 6.30 Violette 7.00 Portcullis 7.35 Regent's Secret 8.05 Digital 8.35 Annibale Caro

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