6 January 2008

Seb Sanders rode another winner yesterday. No surprise in that, he rode a table-topping 213 last year. But fitness fanatics up and down the land will be appalled to hear that yesterday’s victory, on Capricorn Run at Lingfield, was achieved without any training during seven weeks when the nearest thing to a racehorse Sanders saw was the reindeer in Lapland when he took his daughter to see Father Christmas.

That’s not quite true, his wife and daughter would be horrified to hear that the horses at home looked less racey than reindeer. But Sanders, whom we had last seen on that closing Saturday at Doncaster in November when he and Jamie Spencer had tied the jockeys’ championship amid unprecedented excitement, was both open and unrepentant. “It may sound terrible,” he said, “that I have done absolutely no physical training even if I have kept busy round the house. But if you have got fat on you, which I have, you want to burn it off by race-riding, not get all heavily muscled up with pre-conditioning. Daft as it sounds I really enjoyed just cantering to the start today, the feeling of being back on a horse.”

This fitness fanatic’s nightmare was sitting beneath a sign which read: “Don’t Become a One-Trick Pony”, a statement to encourage multi-skilling among stable staff, not an ironic challenge to Sanders’s pursuit of the jockeys’ title. The breath was coming a touch short and the elastic on the waistband might have been a bit tight, but as Sanders had hurtled Capricorn Run ahead into a sling-shot sprint finish off the final turn, there had been no diminution of the blaze that lit up the closing weeks of last season.

That was when Sanders, the 36-year-old journeyman jock, was transformed into Sanders the relentless winner-machine to whom Jamie Spencer paid the most eloquently cryptic of tributes in that crowded Doncaster unsaddling enclosure – “He is like one of those candles you cannot blow out. Just when you think you have done him, up he comes again.” Spencer is still on a vacation, the Sanders candle is back in flame.

The last time he had actually been racing had been before 90,000 cheering Japanese at Hanshin for the International Jockeys’ Championship.

“I had been really worried about my fitness there,” Sanders said, “for I hadn’t ridden for three weeks and had done plenty of celebrating after getting the title. But the incredible thing is that I never felt fitter.

“I think that when you have as many rides as I do [there were no less than 1,242 last year] your body actually welcomes a rest.”

At Lingfield, 90,000 would be a year’s worth of attendances. At the start of proceedings when the seven runners, including Sanders’s opening ride Katiypour, were loaded into the stalls for the little heralded Play Golf@Lingfield Park Selling Stakes at 12.35pm, I counted the spectators on the steppings and frontspace of the grandstand. They came to 143.

They were there to watch the 100th race of Katiypour’s hard-working, 11-victory career. It is now nine seasons since he began as a beautifully-bred Aga Khan hopeful in the Michael Stoute yard and, unlike his jockey, he is not getting any better. “He has been a great servant,” said his present trainer, Brett Johnson, after the 11-year-old had stuck on to be third, “but it’s probably time to find him a nice home.”

Sanders had been sympathetic but succinct. “He is getting long in the tooth,” he said, “he has lost his pace, and he doesn’t stay.” Such uninhibited, unpretentious summaries are very much his trademark and he is similarly frank when he faces up to the hopes of another championship. “People keep asking me if I have got refreshed enough after the last year’s efforts,” he said. “Crikey. I have had seven weeks off, if anything I have got too rested. My weight got as high as 9st 6lb, and I would be 9st today. We will work the other 7lb off gradually, and everything will be geared to being 110 per cent fit for the turf season when it starts at the end of March.”

Sanders positively relishes the battle. “It’s a hard season but it’s only individual days that get exhausting, up early home late and a long drive to Carlisle, now that’s a long day. But to win the title is something very special. When I was an apprentice watching Steve Cauthen and Pat Eddery and then Lester Piggott making a comeback, I could never have believed it.”

And he still hadn’t mentioned his main employer, the ultra-canny Sir Mark Prescott. “I believe there must be another Alborada [the last Prescott superstar] around at some stage,” said Sanders with the same twinkle he used when asked if he could name a future Prescott flyer – “I could,” he famously replied, “but I would have to shoot you afterwards.”

Trainer and jockey make their merry way to Southwell this afternoon. “I have got three rides,” Sanders said, “and the one for the boss is bloody lazy and he will expect it to be driven all the way.” Of such stuff is this champion made.

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