Sanders and Spencer end with honour intact but wrecked by a cruel treadmill

Click to follow

The moment when Jamie Spencer hovered between desperation and despair was so obvious, so naked, that it was almost comic. For if he has a much broader comfort zone than most jockeys – who envy his detachment, instinct, and ease with risk – then its margins are necessarily closer to panic. And here, at the critical moment of his season, he suddenly cracked. At the time he most needed a winner, he candidly abandoned all subtlety and refinement. The sense of release was palpable.

Spencer had to win the last race of the turf season, on Inchadamph at Doncaster on Saturday, to force a tie with Seb Sanders in their gruelling duel for the championship. As the climax to an afternoon of indelible drama, the race could not have been better devised to turn the screw. Two miles, and the endless Doncaster straight. For Spencer, it was the longest race of the longest season.

Halfway down the straight, his mount was going so much better than the rest that the stage was set for Spencer. The moment seemed made for him. He would keep Inchadamph on the bridle, let him coast past his toiling rivals in the final furlong, and win by a neck, hard held. How better to remind everyone that only one of the protagonists had the flair and swagger proper to a champion?

Instead, he suddenly started riding like the man who had taken him to the brink. He decided that the emergency permitted no flourishes. He yanked Inchadamph out of cover, pushed him ahead with over 300 yards still to run, and hit him 10 times with his whip.

As a rule, Spencer would be appalled by such crude tactics. He would say that going for home so early leaves a horse vulnerable to loneliness or idleness. As it happens, there are those who prefer the unadorned efficiency of Sanders. They would rather Inchadamph won by eight lengths, as he did, than risk being caught short. Either way, in abruptly favouring finish over finesse, Spencer disclosed his total exhaustion. It was like watching a torture victim finally giving way, gabbling in relief.

But this was no betrayal, far from it. It was an insight into the brutal price paid by both men in their quest. When Spencer went for broke on Inchadamph, it was because he could not bear the strain a moment longer. He was at his wit's end. Clearly, no matter how naturally things come to him, not even Spencer can operate in such a rarified zone without being constantly engaged, constantly eroded.

The story of the title race had understandably been dominated by the apotheosis of Sanders. Spencer, gilded by his different talents and opportunities, was the privileged obstruction to this strange hybrid, the bulldog-underdog. In the end, however, the heroic fortitude of both men was seen clearest in Spencer. He was stripped pitilessly to his last, automatic impulses; he was so reduced, physically and mentally, that his strategy over the final 300 yards of his epic journey reflected a state fleetingly akin to derangement. "I'm not usually too emotional a person, but I was as choked up as I could be after pulling up," he said afterwards. "That is the most pressure I can remember."

When Spencer was champion in 2005, he had a much easier autumn. But the landscape has changed radically since, and he does not believe his name will be inscribed upon the roll of honour a third time. Indeed, while neither rival matched the tally achieved by either Pat Eddery (195) or Steve Cauthen (197) the last time the championship went to the final afternoon, 20 years ago, this may legitimately be described as a duel of unprecedented attrition. For the pleasing symmetry of its conclusion – matched by the honour and respect between the protagonists – will not alter a damning loss of equilibrium in the later stages of the saga. This was the first time the title chase has followed a frenzied itinerary of floodlit evening racing through the autumn. In future, it will be even worse, with the moronic betting treadmill of Kempton, Wolverhampton and even Great Leighs, some day, providing constant opportunity for jockeys to win mediocre races on mediocre horses.

It has always been right that the championship measures the success of jockeys by quantity rather than quality. Winning a seller at Wolverhampton can demand more skill than winning the Derby. But the fact is that few elite riders will crave honour on these barbarously revised terms. Spencer has already vowed to spend more time with his young family. For weeks, it was said that Sanders was under most pressure, because he would never have the same chance again. In hindsight, perhaps we should have been saying the same of Spencer instead.

Ryan Moore, injured in the spring, happens to be sufficiently young and uncomplaining to put in the miles in 2008, when he is odds-on to retrieve the title he won last year. Sanders, meanwhile, conformed to caricature on Saturday by obediently motoring from Doncaster to Wolverhampton to win the very last race of the evening for his employer, Sir Mark Prescott.

Perhaps a new name will soon emerge, an apprentice, or an immigrant. But for now, with such manic dedication, who else will challenge Moore, if not Sanders?

Title shared for fourth time

* Seb Sanders will be hoping to emulate Charlie Elliott, who shared the jockeys' title with Steve Donoghue in 1923 with 89 wins but won it outright the following year, ending Donoghue's 10-year reign. Charlie Maidment and William Grey finished level on 76 in 1870 and Maidment also tied on 86 with George Fordham in 1871.