SPENCER FACES BIGGEST CHALLENGE

28 December 2003

The year ahead is Jamie Spencer’s date with destiny. His replacement of Michael Kinane as first jockey to Aidan O’Brien will make him or break him. It is as simple and as brutal as that.

At 23 he is fulfilling a promise first proclaimed when he won the Irish 1,000 Guineas on Tarascon as a downy-cheeked 16-year-old. Becoming Irish champion apprentice in 1999 set up his move to England and riding Endless Hall to win the Singapore Cup celebrated his appointment to Luca Cumani’s stable in 2001. Soon he was also being groomed by both Godolphin and O’Brien. He rode 112 winners that year. One day one of them would come calling. Now O’Brien has. Now Spencer has to deliver.

He has talent enough – witness his St Leger win for O’Brien on Brian Boru in September – but this is a quite new level of pressure. Millions and millions of euros, £and dollars rest on the backs of the Ballydoyle runners and the stud careers that follow. Have one unlucky ride, as Spencer himself had on Hawk Wing in the 2,000 Guineas in 2002, and `bad luck’ might be an alibi. Have two and serious `knocking’ is out in the open.

Kinane logged 58 Group One victories for Ballydoyle in five seasons and his ride in the Breeders’ Cup Turf on High Chaparral was one of the finest on any track any time. But at 44, having just collected his 13th jockeys’ championship in Ireland, he was still replaced by the younger rider. He will be a heck of an act to follow.

What’s more he will still be around. Kinane now rides as first jockey for the Aga Khan’s trainer John Oxx and will be in direct competition in the big races. For all Spencer’s promise it would be Kinane’s awesome main-event commitment that most people would still choose. Imagine the relish Mick will take if he can edge out the young tyro in any of their early encounters.

Spencer has great horsemanship skills and a cool nerve. But he is also a lot taller and therefore more weight pressed than Kinane and having to return early from Hong Kong this month because of lack of support was not a great omen. Yet all those things are known to the Coolmore/Ballydoyle team down in Tipperary just as they have always been aware of young Jamie up the road at Ballynonty.

They will need to think long term and stay calm if first results go against them. For Spencer’s challenge is their challenge. It is to prove wrong a harsh old adage: “Those whom the gods wish to destroy they first call promising.”

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