Sanders and Spencer take a final salute in gladiatorial contest for crown of honour
Saturday 10 November 2007
A title. That's all it is. A title, or label. It confers no other reward. And in future it will probably mean even less than it does now. But Seb Sanders and Jamie Spencer could not have contested the jockeys' championship with greater ardour if it carried £1m in prize-money.
Today their epic duel will at last be resolved at Doncaster, the final meeting of a season that began back in March. Since then the rivals have had over 2,000 rides between them, but flew to Musselburgh yesterday deadlocked on 187 winners apiece. By the end of the afternoon, Sanders had inched one ahead, thanks to a typically gritty performance on Alma Mater. The pair then took off for the evening shift, at Wolverhampton, with all still to play for.
In all, they were slugging it out from 1pm to 9.20pm, riding modest animals in races so poor that, for the most part, one or other found himself on the favourite. Today's card, in contrast, is so competitive that it is perfectly possible that neither will ride a winner. A tie remains a strong possibility. Either way, they have kept it alive to the bitter end.
Not that there is any bitterness between them. They have conducted themselves honourably throughout. But this is the first jockeys' championship to be settled by a manic autumn campaign of floodlit evening racing, relentless and mediocre. Spencer, champion on an easier schedule in 2005, has already avowed that he will never again expose himself to such physical and mental attrition in pursuit of a mere bauble.
Having been prevented from defending his title this time by injury, Ryan Moore doubtless remains hungry enough to run the treadmill next year, and probably for a few seasons beyond. It is difficult, however, to envisage others among the recognised elite ever making a priority of the championship, on these merciless terms.
Yet for now – for just one more electrifying afternoon – the prize remains beyond price. If this is indeed the beginning of the end for the jockeys' championship, it is certainly going out with a bang, not a whimper.
The last contest to go to the final afternoon was 20 years ago, when Steve Cauthen thwarted Pat Eddery, 197 to 195. Cauthen was so shattered that he vowed never to pursue the title again.
In soaking up a still tougher autumn, Sanders and Spencer have shown such prodigious stamina and dedication that neither deserves to lose out. Spencer must be counted the moral winner, having accumulated his tally from fewer rides, and missed 50 days through suspension. And, truth be told, at root he is the better jockey. As champion, he is to the manner born.
But it is no paradox to assert that Sanders makes fewer mistakes, and nobody could begrudge such a reward to a man whose meek professionalism is exemplified by his plans for tonight. Though the floodgates of exhaustion will surely open as he leaves Doncaster, whether in joy or despair, he will proceed to Wolverhampton – effectively the first meeting of the all-weather season – in order to meet his obligations to Sir Mark Prescott in the very last race of the night.
If that seems mildly sadistic, on the part of Prescott, then equally there could be no better token of the heroic masochism by which both Sanders and Spencer have forged this unforgettable contest.
Heaven to provide November bliss
There is little doubt that Jamie Spencer's final book of mounts is superior to that of his rival. But even he cannot count on riding a winner at Doncaster today.
Both have place chances in their first encounter (12.30), but Generous Thought looks far more progressive than Mudhish in an open race for the nursery (1.30). With Soft Morning a doubtful runner the coast is clear for Gull Wing to score at Listed level (2.00). The weights favour Sanders in their next clash, as Borderlescott gave 8lb to Zidane when just foiled in a photo for the Stewards' Cup in the summer, but neither could cope with Greek Renaissance (2.35) last time and that colt retains scope for further progress.
In the last big race of the campaign, the Totesport November Handicap, Sanders is likely to find John Terry lacking the commitment of his footballing namesake. Spencer, in contrast, rides the favourite, an unbeaten, progressive Galileo colt for some reason named Pippa Greene. The form of his second success has worked out particularly well, but he runs off a 15lb higher mark this time, and a big field of veteran handicappers will present this inexperienced animal with an uncomfortable new challenge.
HEAVEN KNOWS (nap 3.10) by contrast should now be well equipped for the job, having come to hand steadily after a delayed return to the track this summer. Everything fell into place at Newbury last time, where he won going away after being left with plenty to do. A brother to Notnowcato, he has always looked the type to disclose his class with maturity and could conceivably win by daylight.
The last race is a singularly unattractive betting medium, though Spencer could clutch at a rather stronger straw than Sanders, Inchnadamph having run well in the Cesarewitch last time, as he always does. Backbord's hurdling form would make him interesting, but his fitness must be taken on trust. Who knows? This pair of unexceptional plodders could yet shoulder a momentous burden.
Pouvoir up to the task over jumps
As a rule, the jumpers would already be commanding centre stage, and Channel 4 also has its cameras at Wincanton, where Pouvoir (2.50) can pay a compliment to the exciting Gwanako, who pulled him so far clear of the rest at Chepstow last month.
Abragante (3.25) is palpably well treated for his return to fences, having left this kind of rating well behind when making giant strides over hurdles. Ornais (2.20), meanwhile, has always promised to make a chaser and can make the most of his allowances on his first run over fences.
Sir Tristram worthy of finest memorial
In reporting his death this week, the Racing Post saluted Sir Tristram Ricketts as "racing's consummate civil servant". But the unmistakable warmth of the tributes recorded to the Levy Board chief executive made quite plain that the most important word in that description was "civil".
Sir Tristram was a truly delightful man. In a world not lacking mean spirits he towered above petty squabbles. But his loftiness was merely physical – if vividly so, as might be observed whenever he had the opportunity to throw those long limbs towards the ceiling in his YMCA dance routine. He had altitude, but no airs. He wore his many talents humbly, and engaged easily with people of all backgrounds.
The ghastly haste with which illness claimed him has shocked his many friends in racing. His wife, Annie, and their children will receive heartfelt commiserations from across the industry. The best memorial now, perhaps, would be for all factions to cherish his example, and temper their avarice accordingly. However unlikely, that would be a legacy worthy of the man.
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