Racing: Third man refuses to settle for supporting role

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The Independent Online

Seb Sanders is about as flamboyant as rice pudding. His skill is the way he can knock skin off one.

Seb Sanders is about as flamboyant as rice pudding. His skill is the way he can knock skin off one.

Born in Tamworth, the son of a plumber, it was not a sequinned start. But Sanders, who will be 34 on Saturday, has grown up to be one of the most powerful men in a racehorse saddle, a quality which has taken him close to flag-planting distance at the summit of the jockeys' championship and could yet wrest the title off another riding strongman, Kieren Fallon.

It was two years ago that Sanders signalled he could be a player at the top level of the numbers game. He finished third to the Irishman. The duel has recommenced this season, with the addition of the emotionally and stylistically quite different Frankie Dettori, who yesterday recorded a double at Newmarket to establish a lead of two over Fallon and 13 over Sanders.

While the title is being portrayed as a fight between the company of two, Sanders endeavours to make it a crowd. He knows he is in position, both now and in the long term, to take advantage of any slip. The difference this season is Sir Mark Prescott, for whom Sanders has become principal rider. Prescott is a supplier of bulk winners, but, persuasively, is considered rather shrewd.

It does not take much to appear an intellectual leviathan of the turf. Prescott has built his reputation as a Rhodes scholar via the complex technique of actually putting his horses in races that suit them, which says more about racing than about the trainer himself.

Nevertheless, if Prescott "rates" a jockey that is enough for most. It is like a great celestial finger emerging to confer respectability. In July, Sanders rode a record monthly total of 44 winners for 22 different trainers. "You get a lot of respect through the [Prescott] job," Sanders says. "It's put me on a higher plane. Even when I took the second job there [six years ago] there was a few more rides. Before, they wouldn't have even given me a second look. Now there's the difference of becoming first jockey.

"Before, I felt I was going by unnnoticed, but people are taking more notice of me simply because of the championship. People are watching. In the past, I could ride two or three winners somewhere, Frankie would fart, and he would get all the headlines."

From the time he was in the British Racing School, Sanders has built his career on stamina and determination. At work at least, he does not do flash, which is just as well as that post is already taken.

With narrow, blue eyes beneath fair, streaked hair and a miner's torso, Sanders looks a man to thrive on hard work. That led to mutually efficient relationships with Bryan McMahon, his first trainer/sponsor, and Prescott, both of whom would consider the Marquis de Sade a bit of a pinko softy.

If Sanders, like another member of the weighing room, attempted an acrobatic return to earth in the winners' enclosure, he might find a bear trap waiting on the way down. "Just because I don't do those things doesn't mean I'm not excited, but there's a time and a place for everything," he says. "Frankie is Frankie and people enjoy him, including the people he works for. My job's a little bit different.

"The way you go about the job is determined by the people you work for, and the people who have employed me have been pretty much old-school trainers. They're not really into flying dismounts. I've still got a print of Bryan's boot on my backside."

The two jockey names which most preoccupy Sanders now belong to Fallon and Dettori. When you ask the third man if he feels any sense of inferiority in comparison to his more celebrated counterparts, there is a decent pause. Sanders wants to get the balance of the answer right.

"I enjoy a nice tight finish," he says eventually. "And I'd fancy my chances upsides anybody. You don't think twice about them when you're in a race. You don't think, 'crikey, it's Kieren there, I'd better push a bit harder'. Kieren's got this great thing when he's coming from behind about whistling and it faces a lot of lads out. Panic stations go off. But, as far as I'm concerned, it's just Kieren riding a horse, riding a race.

"It's competitive, but there's a lot of banter. Frankie rang me the other week and said he was going to bring back a couple of mobsters from Chicago to deal with me. We're all quite good friends, winding each other up, including Kieren, 'the Assassin'. Gary Hind calls me 'Elvis, King of the Hill', because I always seem to do well at Brighton."

Brighton, and other racecourses of less lordly distinction, used to be the tracks we associated with Sanders, the scenes of his number crunching. But with the elevation in profile has come improvement in the quality of his winners. Compton Place's victory in the 1997 July Cup used to stand as a Group One island, but this year there has been Bachelor Duke's Irish 2,000 Guineas and the success of Bahamian Pirate in the Nunthorpe Stakes.

All of this has come at a price, yet it is a cost for which Sanders would ransack the piggy bank. "My weight's been good recently because I haven't even had time to think about eating," he says. "You don't get to see the wife or the baby [Leona, and one-year-old Darcy] and of course you miss all that. And God knows how many car engines I've blown up along the way. It's quite frightening the amount of miles I've done, this year alone.

"But it's amazing how the day is once you've had a winner. That gets you right through the day. If you haven't had a winner you start getting grumpy and irritable and start taking it out on the wrong people. If some poor little apprentice gives you a bump he might get on the wrong end of a rollicking.

"Fortunately, that hasn't been happening too often this season. The idea now is to hang in there, on to their coat-tails, and nick a few more winners. This is what I've put all the hard work in for all my life, to give myself a fighting chance."