Racing: Spencer determined to be an angel who avoids the fall

There is a toughness behind the cherubic features of the heir to Piggott and Dettori as he shuns the traps that have brought down others

Richard Edmondson
Tuesday 17 December 2013 05:05
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I ring the wholly cherubic Jamie Spencer on a Sunday morning, while he serves a two-day suspension by relaxing back home in his native Ireland.

Racing's freshest wunderkind sounds a little less than fresh himself, so the minutiae of our future meeting is left for another time. The next day, Spencer admits he cannot remember a single word of our conversation. He had been at a do organised by Paul Carberry, the National Hunt jockey who makes Bacchus look like a kid's entertainer. "Those jumps boys," Spencer says cheerily, "they don't give up easily do they?" In the background seems to be the sound of an image cracking once again.

The first shattering came in May, when, just after Hawk Wing had been cruelly denied in the 2,000 Guineas, his rider, young Jamie, was caught on camera mouthing something unspeakably obscene. It seemed so incongruous. Like catching grandma spitting.

Normality, however, is restored when we next meet at Newmarket's Bedford Lodge over tea, which Spencer shares, and biscuits, which he treats as if nuclear waste. He is dressed in fawn and has the demeanour of that animal. He is shy and does not seem to know what all the fuss is about.

But there is always a fuss in racing when a bright young thing comes along, be it a horse, trainer or jockey. Spencer, at 22, is the freshly scrubbed heir apparent to Piggott and Dettori. Apparently. There have been many in this position before.

The latest candidate is from the jumping territory of Co Tipperary, the only son of George and Enid, who once described her son as "a shrewd child". George trained the winner of the 1963 Champion Hurdle, the one-eyed Winning Fair, and told those in the winners' enclosure: "Sure, if he'd had two eyes he'd have won the Derby."

When Jamie, or James as they call him at home, was 12, though, his father died. He remembered the paternal advice to go to Liam Browne's to learn jockeyship and enrolled for four years in the old martinet's barracks. "The best way to get on with him was to say nothing," remembers Spencer. "If he said the ceiling was black, even though it was white you would agree with him. I never argued with him. You were safer to agree with him."

Spencer had been to Kilkenny College, the largest boarding school in Ireland, with Tommy Stack's son, Fozzy. Stack snr invited him to ride work at the beginning of the 1998 season, and four weeks later he won the Irish 1,000 Guineas on Tarascon. The bandwagon was creaking on.

Spencer arrived in England on the first day of the new millennium. Tony McCoy and David Casey, the jump jockeys, met him at a service station on the M4 and he stayed with McCoy for a while. The success soon rubbed off. He rode 78 winners in his first year and 112 last season, a contract with Luca Cumani the reward for his fledgling efforts.

Dettori was recovering from his plane crash and Kieren Fallon's shoulder injury meant there were other good rides around. Just as had been the case with Tarascon, Spencer's timing seemed to be perfect. "I've been very lucky until now," he says. "I've had a smooth run. People who know me say I could fall into a barrel of crap and come out of it smelling of roses."

Yet, if opportunities are butterflies then Jamie Spencer was proving that he had come over with a fairly huge net. But then came the weekend when two got away. Gossamer was under par in the 1,000 Guineas, while Hawk Wing had the misfortune to be drawn on the wrong side in the colts' equivalent. "I was very fortunate that Aidan O'Brien trained the other horse [Rock Of Gibraltar]," Spencer says. "I was disappointed at the time but you come out of these things a better person."

There will be many other holes in the road ahead, but Spencer will ensure he does not dig any of them himself. There are nearly men sobbing into the bottom of their pint pots across Ireland and this young jockey is determined not to pull up a bar stool in their company.

"You always get people who tell you about this fellow who would have been a great jockey but it didn't happen," he says. "Obviously, they just didn't put enough into it. Or didn't concentrate enough. I don't want to throw it away.

"Sometimes, having a bit of a weight problem can help. You see some jockeys who are light getting success and they think they can do what they like, go out all night, and not be heavy the next day. For me, the restrictions are there and it's not like I have many options." The odd Carberry session apart.

There is clearly more to Spencer than meets the eye, especially when his fingers come up over the saddle and start becoming all hairy and monstrous. "The will to win is something that burns inside you," he says. "Throughout the race I wouldn't care about anybody. It all means getting there first.

"A lot of people in racing aren't hardy enough. You have to be hardy. I got a fall there at Brighton last week when Seb Sanders was trying to intimidate me and take my position. You can't say 'go on, it's yours'. You have to be hardy. But my horse ducked out and turned over. I went for the gap but my horse didn't. I'd do it again."

It is an attitude, allied to ability, which has alerted the big guns. Spencer rides for both Ballydoyle and Godolphin, respectively the most effective and most affluent set-ups in world racing. The suggestion is that either could employ him as No2 rider, on a holding contract or, in time, as stable jockey.

"I'm very happy to be riding for them, but you're only as good as your last ride and your last winner," Spencer says. "I take it [the publicity] all with a pinch of salt. You can get knocked as well. You can go up very quick and then come back down twice as fast. As Richard Quinn told me one day, 'if you're not prepared to read the bad press then you shouldn't read the good press either'.

"I'm going to put as much work as I can into my riding, try my hardest, and that way there is no one to blame at the end of the day. I just want to be as good as I can be. To ride to the best of my ability. Time will tell whether that's good enough."

For now, Jamie Spencer, would just like to secure an extension to his contract with Cumani. "Jamie's an excellent horseman and establishes a very good rapport with any horse he rides, but I can't think of any reason why either Frankie [Dettori] or [Michael] Kinane should get sacked so Jamie can get taken on," the trainer says. "I think the speculation is wide of the mark and largely premature.

"And if you were in his shoes, why would you want to go to either Godolphin or Coolmore as a second rider when you could have the second rides there anyway and still have my first rides? Jamie is like a two-year-old that has won Group races. Now he's got to train on."

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