4 November 2007

It may all come down to this. The two jockeys came past locked together, their whole bodies desperately thrusting the horses towards the line. It was going to be close. So close that the photo-finish showed only a nostril in it. So tight that the placings were reversed in the Stewards’ Room for “interference by the winner on the second” – a decision which goes to appeal on Thursday. Jamie Spencer versus Seb Sanders is a battle to remember.

The struggle for the 2007 Jockeys’ Championship has become the most protracted duel since Pat Eddery took Steve Cauthen to the last day and to the point of exhaustion in 1987. When the title is finally decided at Doncaster on Saturday, it may still be so that the result of that appeal against Friday’s Newmarket demotion of Sanders in favour of Spencer might yet prove to be crucial.

After 31 weeks and a collective 2000 races, Spencer leads 183-182 after both drew a blank yesterday afternoon but Sanders rode the first two winners at Kempton’s evening meeting. Sanders misses today with suspension, Spencer is ruled out on Tuesday and Wednesday.

It also remains a journey whose final stages have a lot more grit than glamour. Newmarket may have been an Arkadian idyll of gleaming turf and autumn trees as Spencer and Sanders cantered down to that opener at 12.15 on Friday, but this week’s exchanges will be in front of sparse afternoon crowds at Musselburgh and Lingfield.

If this were tennis or golf and therefore decided by money won, the £3 million logged by Dettori’s mounts would have already made Britain’s favourite Italian uncatchable with Spencer second and Sanders only seventh. But as of the moment, our tradition has it both that winning the lowliest selling race at Catterick ranks the same as the Epsom Derby and that “The Championship” should run not from January to December, but from March 31st to November 10th to ostensibly call it ‘The Turf Season’, despite all races on the sand during that time still counting towards the title. Confused? Who cares if you have a week to go, the whip up and your main rival riding like a dervish beside you?

Those images at Newmarket put the duel in microcosm. 27-year-old Spencer, longer, more angular, clamped down into the horse beneath; 36-year-old Sanders, shorter, chunkier and prepared to pump until he drops. Spencer may be famous for his high-risk, ice-cool waiting races, but you don’t win championships by having only one method. Battle Rain was allowed to bowl along in the lead and it was Sanders and the dark bay Classic Descent that became the hunters who swept down the Newmarket slope to attack the prey. The others were beaten, the battle was on and, for five frantic whip-smacking seconds, nothing else mattered but whether one could inch ahead of the other.

When Sanders’ number was called his face registered a grey sort of satisfaction. He may be thicker-set but, like his rival, he exists on a hungry, evening-meal-only routine. It was his seventh winner in the last three racing days, the gap was just two. But for all Seb’s industry, the smart money had kept Spencer as short as 12-1 ON at the beginning of the week. Sanders’ “I will never give up” response had echoes of Jimmy Connors’ famous Wimbledon challenge to Bjorn Borg – “I will keep on trying, I will follow him until the ends of the earth and then I will beat him.”

Trouble was that the next defeat was to come in the Stewards’ Room. Spencer had dismounted with a bit of the fox in his chiselled features – “it was only a short-head, he leant on me, I am sure to get it,” he said as he strode purposefully back. Ten minutes later he was trying not to look too smug as he followed an incensed, arm-waving Sanders back past the scales while the revised verdict was announced.

Two races later, an even unkinder cut. Spencer galvanized a big two-year-old called Foolin Myself to power up the hill and extend the gap to five. Sanders has come a long way from the plumber’s son who got a job with his local trainer and who, despite an apprentices’ title, is seen as much more graft than glitter. But this championship could still be pictured as ‘the artist versus the artisan’.

The “artist” part of the pairing has been here before, winning the title in 2005, only to relinquish it last year to Ryan Moore – heavily hampered by no less than 67 days of suspension. This season, an injury to Moore and a mere 50 days of grounding has put him in pole position, but he has already stated that in future he will opt for quality in front of quantity . “Without my sponsors (Lycetts and The Daily Star) I would be running at a loss at most meetings,” Jamie said on Friday, “Frankie keeps asking what it’s like to ride for nothing. But Seb is a great competitor and I have to admit that this battle makes you want to get up in the morning.”

The rest of the day only emphasised how tough the competition is likely to be. At 3.45 a calmer, even more resolute Sanders drove Double Banded away from leg-weary rivals up the Newmarket hill. At 3.50, still in breeches and boots, he was in a big Mercedes as he set off for the Friday evening slog to Wolverhampton. Just over three hours later Sanders had his 180th winner after a little filly called Loose Caboose had been given an all-action Sanders hustle to collect the first at Dunstall Park. The gap was three. We were back where we had started the day.

“It has been a great year,” Seb said as the car skirted the M6 on the way home to wife Leonie’s cooking,”but I can’t pretend that to get this close and not win it, would not be very, very disappointing. People still pigeon-hole me as a journeyman jock, so it would be good to get recognition.”

It may not be sensible, but wow, it can hold us in thrall.

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