The incredible journeyman: Fanfare for racing's common man

The race for the riders' title has come to a thrilling finale this week, thanks in large part to the extraordinary performances of Seb Sanders, the 36-year-old outsider who was told at racing school that he would 'never make a jockey'. Chris McGrath reports

The milieu could hardly be more prosaic: a deserted, fag-end meeting, in the final week of the Flat season, on the synthetic circuit at Lingfield, with maybe a couple of hundred spectators squinting into the low, wintry sunshine. Nor, come to that, could the man himself – still so often described as a journeyman that the constant procession of planes, stooping towards Gatwick, might almost be teasing him. But the tension, unmistakably, was on an epic scale.

Seb Sanders came to Lingfield yesterday three winners behind Jamie Spencer in their heroic duel for the jockeys' championship, which reaches a climax at Doncaster on Saturday. This was the first of two days during which he had a clear run, with Spencer sitting helplessly at home, serving a suspension.

Sanders' first four mounts, including three hot favourites, were all beaten, leaving Sanders to trudge back to the changing rooms with an increasingly sullen, pasty expression. But desperate times call for desperate measures, and in the fifth race Desperate Dan answered his jockey's call to become his 183rd winner since the turf season began at the end of March and close the gap at the top to two, with Sanders riding in another 11 races today while Spencer remains on the sidelines.

Over the season Sanders and Spencer have between them ridden in over 2,000 races. The duel is even being monitored at the Old Bailey, where Sanders recently made a brief appearance as a witness in the race-fixing trial involving the former champion jockey Kieren Fallon. (The presiding judge has even been seen to exchange the odd wry aside with Fallon's counsel over the ups and downs of Sanders' challenge.)

It is the most attritional contest since Steve Cauthen pursued Pat Eddery to the final afternoon of the season, 20 years ago. And that is just how it should be, if Sanders is ever going to win a championship. For his opportunity has not been forged in the sort of molten, dangerous furnaces where Fallon or Spencer, in their different ways, have explored the boundary between brittle and brilliant – Fallon in personal strife, Spencer in his daring, impudent style of riding. Sanders started with a cold ingot and a hammer, and just never stopped banging. And here he is, at 36, finally making sparks fly.

Jockeyship, on the face of it, is all about precarious balance, about the dynamism that can be achieved upon the narrow pivot of a thoroughbred's withers. And there has been a corresponding sense of hazard, of instability, in the lives of many of the masters, from Fred Archer onwards. While Sanders faces daily privations of his own, in keeping his weight down, he stands as a rebuke to the tragic romanticism of his calling. His is a modest tale of endeavour, perseverance, graft. It is difficult to imagine any youngster choosing to become a jockey because Sanders has caught his imagination. As champion, however, he would be an inspiration to any that have already done so, and are struggling.

"This is what I've put all the hard work in for all my life, to give myself a fighting chance," he has said. "I'm that type of chap. When I set myself a goal I'll keep going, head down, until I net it. No matter how long it takes."

He could hardly choose a better foil than Spencer, champion in 2005, and a rider to whom everything has always seemed to come easily. Born into a racing family, the Irishman was already winning Classics as a teenager, at an age when Sanders' CV was still confined to a single afternoon of pony trekking on a family holiday. At 27, Spencer remains comfortable with risk. With that sweet hold on the reins, he emphasises the yeoman qualities of his rival: reliability, strength, doggedness. If Spencer is the coursing greyhound, Sanders is the bulldog.

Sanders is that rare breed, a British jockey, born and raised in the Midlands. His mother decorates wedding cakes. One day his stepfather, a plumber, went to the local racing stables at Tamworth to fix a leak. He asked the trainer, Bryan McMahon, if there might be a chance for Seb, a schoolboy dreaming of football with Birmingham City, to get some experience in the yard.

To begin with, Sanders was barely allowed near the horses, but McMahon did not take long to realise that he had stumbled across an unusual talent. "It's not something you can put your finger on," he remembered. "Some of them just don't look right. But Seb was always well balanced, seemed to be part of the horse. He just looked comfortable."

It did not seem that way to the British Racing School at Newmarket. At the end of a 10-week course, the verdict was unequivocal. "A lovely lad," they said. "But he'll never make a jockey."

Sanders had to wait another 18 months for his first ride: Band On The Run, at Pontefract. He won. McMahon's wife, Joy, recalls that a filial bond began to develop with this cheeky, grinning lad. "He was a devil for being late," she said. "Bryan used to say he had an encyclopaedia of excuses. But he learnt to ride here."

Not that he was indulged. He professes to still having "a print of Bryan's boot on my backside". After seven years of down-to-earth tutelage, in 1994, Sanders was considered ready to join Reg Akehurst in Epsom, and the following season became champion apprentice. The lasting loyalty between Sanders and trainers like McMahon and Peter Makin confirm his old-school values – something critical to his big breakthrough, three years ago, when appointed stable jockey to Sir Mark Prescott. There is no stricter man on the turf, no more exacting judge. "Being Sir Mark's No 1 raised my profile and lifted me to another level in the league of jockeys," Sanders acknowledged. "It's as if people look at me in a different light. They've got such respect for Sir Mark."

At Heath House, the boy with an encyclopaedia of excuses did not get beyond running over an aardvark. He has been late only once. "It was by only five minutes," he said. "But Sir Mark's reaction was ... well, unprintable. It'll never, never happen again. My wife makes sure it won't."

Prescott remembers that Sanders did turn up one morning with stubble on his chin. "It was ghastly," he said. "I made my view clear on the matter. Though to be fair to him, I think I'd had him riding at Carlisle the previous evening, and he was living in Epsom at the time. He has arrived clean-shaven ever since."

Prescott is never more scrupulous than in instructing jockeys how to ride a particular horse. He recalls giving Sanders his first chance, at Salisbury, and watching as the horse was produced precisely on cue to win. On his next ride, Sanders again followed his orders to the letter. "My God," thought Prescott. "This is unusual." He says that if he cannot see the first 150 yards of a race, he knows exactly where Sanders will be when the horses come into view.

As soon as Sanders got the job, Fallon identified him as a potential rival. It seemed an exotic forecast, but has proved prescient. Typically, Sanders assumed that Fallon was using his name to bait other rivals. But slowly he began to contemplate the feasibility of a title challenge. That July alone, he rode 44 winners, believed to be a record. Twice in one week, he rode at three meetings in a day. His infant daughter remained a stranger.

In some ways, this superhuman diligence has entrenched perceptions of Sanders as somehow too worthy for the elite. He remains far down the list of obvious choices when a fancied ride becomes vacant in a big race. Six jockeys have won more prize-money this season. Sanders' record in Group races is one winner from 40 rides; Spencer has 13 from 70. "People have that perception of Kinane or Kieren or Johnny Murtagh or Frankie riding Group winners and it's a little unfair," Sanders said once. "I ride as well as anybody, though I'm not wanting to blow my own trumpet. I think I can hold my own in any company. It's a case of waiting for the opportunities and taking them when they come."

In contrast to Spencer, tall and trim, Sanders is stocky and squat. He may mistrust frills, he may lack nuances, but he will fear nobody in a finish. He mocks the way other riders panic when they hear Fallon creeping up from behind, with his trademark whistling. As far as he concerned, it is just another jockey riding another horse.

For the moment, though, the jockey Sanders will be most concerned about is Spencer when he returns to the track tomorrow. It is possible, however, that for their decisive shoot-out they may be wearing suits, not silks. Last Friday Sanders beat his rival in a photo finish at Newmarket, only for the stewards to reverse the placings, after inquiring into interference. Peter Makin, trainer of the relegated winner, promptly lodged an appeal.

Aware that it could hardly leave the matter unresolved on Saturday, the British Horseracing Authority has brought forward the hearing to tomorrow. And as Spencer is due to ride at Musselburgh, in Scotland, the panel will sit at the unprecedented hour of 7am. "It has been years since such a thrilling climax," Paul Struthers, the authority's spokesman, said"and it simply wasn't acceptable to allow the possibility of the championship being decided by the disciplinary panel after the conclusion of the season. While the outcome will have some impact on who will be champion, the action will culminate where it should do – on the racecourse."

As for Sanders, he cannot disguise how much a championship would mean. He resents still being described as a journeyman. He wants to show that he has arrived, at long last. As he admits, to get this close, and not win, would be bitterly disappointing.

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