On the face of it, they are like a pair of boxers locked together, trying to slip in one more punch before the bell. Arriving at Goodwood yesterday, Jamie Spencer had ridden 127 winners, and Seb Sanders 125. Mysteriously, however, the bookmakers were already holding one glove aloft in triumph.
Spencer is as short as 1-6 to win the jockeys' title a second time, whereas Sanders can be backed at 7-2. Yet there are still 10 weeks to go, and their cornermen agree that the issue is likely to remain a good deal closer than those odds imply.
Certainly the duel has appealing narrative symmetry: Sanders is the workhorse, the bulldog, the Hurricane; Spencer the thoroughbred, the greyhound, the Spitfire. He was already riding Classic winners as a teenager. At 36, Sanders remains on the margins of the big time, and a first championship would do nothing to change that. He is cherished for his strength, professionalism and dependability. In turn, however, his mistrust of frills prompts some to doubt whether he has sufficient flair for the best races. Others, equally, will always be goaded by Spencer's studied panache, his willingness to take risks.
But it may prove that the title is ultimately won and lost by two other men: by their aircrew, their riggers. The life of a jockey's agent is a curious blend. Essentially solitary, it demands an even, durable temperament; at the same time it requires constant communication, and opportunism. It is the agents who choose or create the chances their employers must convert into winners.
Sanders is managed by Keith Bradley, a former banking systems analyst; Spencer's man for the past two seasons has been Andrew Sheret, who cut his teeth working for Timeform. Both will have to earn their keep this autumn.
"Obviously I'm hopeful, but it isn't as clear-cut as the bookmakers would have you believe," Sheret said yesterday. "Jamie may have to ride in big races overseas towards the end of the season, indeed he is going to Leopardstown on Saturday to ride Red Evie. But if we can keep the strike-rate around 20 per cent, then hopefully that might be enough."
Bradley assesses the odds against Sanders as closer to 6-4. "I think the emergence of Ryan Moore has hampered Spencer more than Seb," he said. "Certainly it would be nice for racing if it could go to the wire, though obviously I would prefer to kick 20 clear so the pressure could be off. The one thing I hope is that it isn't settled in the stewards' room, that one of them picks up a big ban somewhere along the line."
As it happens, Spencer's progress has already been badly interrupted by suspensions. Indeed, yesterday was his first day in the saddle after eight days off, and at the end of May he was idle for 15 days. "That has been frustrating," Sheret admitted. "Every time we have opened up a lead, it has almost felt as though we have to win it all over again."
Equally, Sanders has been hindered by the change in the rules that closed a favourite loophole of his employer, Sir Mark Prescott, preventing a horse running up a sequence of quick wins under the same penalty. Sanders has also resented a new restriction on jockeys to nine meetings a week. "But while that has been difficult, it has been the same for everyone," Bradley acknowledged.
Both insist their employers are betraying no sign of pressure. Bradley says Sanders is "thriving", while Sheret declared: "Good days or bad, Jamie is always the same. Even when you are annoyed with yourself, he's always relaxed, always level-headed. And as agents we should try and be the same."
Bradley concurs. "In the old football cliché, you must take it one game at a time," he said. "Some mornings you wake up and think you have a great book. Then the first ride is a non-runner, the going turns against the next, and the next one gets beat. But another day you can expect nothing and end up with two in the back of the net."
Spencer left Goodwood yesterday the happier, having won a Group Three prize on Lovelace. That not only increased his lead to three, but inflated the gulf in prizemoney between the protagonists. As he says himself: "For winning the title you get a cheque for charity and a trophy, but you need to be recognised by your colleagues for winning big races."
Bradley is not aggrieved by a scarcity of rides at that level. "Most of them go with retainers," he shrugged. "Seb enjoys his job with Sir Mark and you take the rough with the smooth." He strives for the same balance in his own calling. "The worst aspect is that you never get a day off," he said. "And you do need a thick skin."
Spitfire v Hurricane: Dogfight for the jockeys' title
Jamie Spencer – 128 wins
Last 14 days: 8 wins
2007 Prizemoney: £2,037,450
Profit/loss to £1 stake: +£12.80
Seb Sanders – 125 wins
Last 14 days: 15 wins
2007 Prizemoney: £929,875
Profit/loss to £1 stake: -£56.57
NB: Mud Monkey
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