SPENCER LEARNS TO TAKE THE STRAIN

12 June 2005

Ascot is at York this week because it is in the middle of a rebuilding process. So too is Jamie Spencer, but, unlike Ascot, he is well ahead of schedule.

On Wednesday he will ride dual Classic and Breeders’ Cup star Ouija Board in the Prince of Wales’s Stakes as the pick of an impressive book of rides. On the surface they do not quite match last year’s bookings from which he notched up three winners at the Royal meeting. But back then he was the privileged but already beleaguered first jockey to the Aidan O’Brien stable. Now he is on his own. And markedly better for it.

For while he ended last season as Ireland’s champion jockey, 63 of his 93 winners came from O’Brien’s operation. By contrast the 58 British winners he has logged since his dramatic Ballydoyle resignation in February have come from 32 different trainers with no more than eight from any one source. Spencer, 25 last Wednesday, tall, clear-eyed and top of the official table, is a rider and a confidence redeemed.

Few would have bet on so swift a transformation that Tipperary day in early February when he and his soon-to-be wife Emma put a few bits and pieces and two dogs into the car and set off for the boat with Spencer’s own unlikely version of Oscar Wilde’s famous line “all I have to declare is my talent”.

Sure he may already be a wealthy young man in his own right, have been hailed as a star since he won the Irish 1,000 Guineas as a 16-year-old, have twice ridden over a hundred winners in a British season before being signed up by John Magnier for the O’Brien team in 2003, but back in February Spencer seemed to be facing life as a busted flush.

Except that he wasn’t. He was taking control of it again. In many ways he had been a victim of his own success, good manners and unimpeachable racing connections. His late father George Spencer had trained Champion Hurdle hero Winning Fair, his own internment with Liam Browne saw him become Ireland’s Champion Apprentice in 1999, his successes in Britain saw him become first Luca Cumani’s stable jockey and then rider in waiting for both the Godolphin and the Ballydoyle jobs. He was the heir apparent. But inheritance would come too soon.

Spencer could never really be accused of becoming a tall poppy in his personal life but after riding a still unbettered 112 winners in the 2001 season he began to get horses so good that anything other than success is a failure. Specifically, his second on Hawk Wing in the 2,000 Guineas three years ago, was hung out in the memory. His continuing relationship with Godolphin and with Ballydoyle developed into winning the St Leger for O’Brien on Brian Boru in 2003 and then replacing Mick Kinane as stable jockey last season. In hindsight the scene was set for a fulfilment of Cyril Connolly’s doom-laden line, “those whom the Gods wish to destroy they first call promising”.

For at Ballydoyle, O’Brien’s obsession with detail makes it the ultimate in pressure cooker jobs. If the battle-hardened, Arc and Derby winning Kinane found it too much, what chance would the talented but still unfinished Spencer have? The answer was not much. The stable’s superstar One Cool Cat blew out to finish last in the English 2,000 Guineas, the quirky Antonius Pius swerved away his chance with the French 2,000 Guineas at his mercy and in midsummer Powerscourt ducked left and was disqualified after winning the Arlington Million in Chicago.

The nadir came at the Breeders’ Cup in Texas last November when first Antonius Pius did another final-furlong throw away and then Spencer, his confidence clearly gone, sent Powerscourt to the front far too early in the Breeders’ Cup Turf. His face as he walked back had a haunted look. Up in the box later John Magnier was magnanimous but you wondered what would happen in another season. Come February Spencer himself was not prepared to wonder.

Since then he has kept his head down and his mouth shut except to make one clear statement of faith. “There is more to life than horses,” he said. “Any jockey who says he doesn’t feel any pressure will be lying. I’ve been thinking about leaving for a while and in the end it was 50-50 personal and professional reasons. If you don’t go to bed content with life, you are doing the wrong thing.”

The words have an uncanny echo of his mentor and father figure Barney Curley for whom he made a first visit to England to win a hurdle race on a horse called Magic Combination way back in January 1999. “I have always had great faith in him,” said Barney yesterday, “he has great talent, is a fine judge of a horse and he is getting better. Not many people would have been strong enough to leave Ballydoyle like he did.”

That strength was evident as Spencer conducted himself through a 10-ride afternoon and evening at Sandown and Goodwood on Friday. He will always be very tall in the saddle but he locks down lower into his horse and wields his whip more sparingly than he did last season. He is using the time that confidence brings and developing his gift. “I don’t feel under any strain,” he said between races. “Very often I can travel with Darryll [Holland] in his plane. We didn’t leave Newmarket until 12 today and I am really enjoying riding for so many different people.”

None of Friday’s clients were actually rewarded with a winner but significant among them was the name of Sir Michael Stoute for whom Jamie has now ridden a winner and two seconds from three rides in the last week. It was also for Stoute that he yesterday rode the promising Bold Eagle at Sandown. Jamie Spencer may have closed the door on Ballydoyle but it looks as if he has opened it to an even bigger and certainly much happier future.

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