11 November 2007

A pulsating battle between Jamie Spencer and Seb Sanders ends with late equaliser in title race

The sun was setting at the end of the Doncaster straight but the cheers were rising to greet one of the crowning moments in the whole racing story. Jamie Spencer had just won the very last race of the Flat-racing season to tie with Seb Sanders in one of the closest ever battles for the jockeys’ championship. It had been a day to almost choke on drama.

They had started with Sanders leading Spencer by just one, 189 winners to 188 for this March 31 – Nov 10 season. Spencer was booked for seven rides, Sanders for just five and the second race threatened to end things first for better then for worst. With a hundred yards to go Sanders was in front only for an extraordinary Godolphin-trained debutant called Omnicat to sweep ahead swerving violently to its left. As jockey Eddie Ahern switched his whip to his left hand to prevent Omnicat going over to the rail the horse then altered course sharply to starboard, unshipped Ahern and bore down on the hapless Sanders.

“I saw him and just had time to say ‘oh s***’,” Sanders said afterwards. “I thought he was bound to wipe me out but at the last moment he straightened and somehow I didn’t fall off mine.” His horse was called Incomparable and now it was a name to match the atmosphere. We had come for sporting theatre hoping for excitement and here we were reeling in the very first scene. The packed stands had an odd, charged, questioning buzz about them. Sanders was now two ahead. Where would the story go next?

It was Spencer’s cue and he stepped centre stage with the aplomb of a star who at 27 has already been champion on both sides of the Irish Sea. In the next race he lit up the crowd as he drove the two-year-old Minus Fifteen to the front with the favourite Premier Danseur cutting him down. From high in the stand you could hear 20,000 voices howling him home. They knew Spencer needed this to keep the drama alive. But the favourite forced it to a photo on the line. The buzz waited for the emotionless announcer’s voice: “First No 6.” Spencer had lost it.

But had he? Just half an hour later he was driving another two-year-old to the front. This was called Generous Thought, which is what both Spencer and Sanders have been attracting to their much-beleaguered profession. For weeks they have criss-crossed the country in the most relentless fast moving one-to-one sporting duel in memory. Generous Thought was not giving this away. Spencer was just one behind. Everything was still possible.

Not in the next it wasn’t. Sanders didn’t ride but Spencer’s horse Gull Wing was trapped on the rail and when she got out she found the ground too firm for her short choppy action. Three more chances for Spencer but now in the day’s big sprint Sanders looked as if he had finally clinched things. With his rival again trapped behind horses, Sanders was out ahead on the tough Borderlescott with just reigning champion Ryan Moore on Galeota closing on him. At 36, Sanders has perfected his own chunky, punching, all-action style. As he flashed past us, body thrusting, whip cracking, he looked a certain winner. It would be two up with two to play. He would have tied at least. But then the announcement: “First No 2.” Moore had spoilt it. No crown yet.

Then Moore, whose badly broken arm in March had opened this championship up for the pair of them, turned the screw on Spencer. For in the featured totesport.com November Handicap he stormed home on the impressive Malt Or Mash while Spencer could find no tune on favourite Pippa Greene. With one race left the scores were still Sanders 190 – Spencer 189. After years of grafting slowly up the jockeys’ tree, Sanders was now assured of at least a share in the title. And he let it show.

“I am just so, so thrilled,” he said with the tears unashamed in his weary eyes, his wife Leona and young daughter Darcey by his side, “so many people have worked so hard to help me to get here and the really bad feeling was the thought that this still could get taken away. Jamie is a smashing guy and I don’t mind if he wins the last. But for me this is the Holy Grail.”

He had been through 1,121 rides to get there and you could warm your hands on the sheer enormity of his effort. But the play was not yet over. Sanders’ horse had been withdrawn from the last but Spencer was loaded up on the favourite with a whole lap of the two-mile circuit to cover. More than any other jockey riding Spencer has made ice-cool waiting tactics his own. Here again he was stalking the field, coiled up on the unpronounceable, but easy-moving Inchnadamph. But as Spencer passed the two-furlong pole, with a share in the jockeys’ title at the winning line, he could wait no longer. He slammed Inchnadamph to the front and belaboured him to the post as if Old Nick was at his quarters.

The crowd couldn’t believe it and – as Spencer came back, neither for a moment could he. “I don’t get emotional,” he said. “But as I pulled up it almost overwhelmed me. It has been a huge, huge effort which I don’t think I could go through again. Seb is amazing. He just keeps coming at you. I am going home to sleep for a week but I hope we have given everyone something to remember.”

The title celebrations had been preceded by a presentation to mark the retirement of former champion Kevin Darley. “I have had 30 wonderful years,” said the hugely respected Darley, “and I believe today shows how great this game can be.” For once the believing was easy.

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