5 August 2007

|A year ago to the day Jamie Spencer’s face was a mixture of pity and disgust as he tried to converse with a man dying of Aids in a shanty town in Zambia. Back then he was a suspended jockey on a charity mission. Yesterday he was the master of Goodwood with two dramatic late, late victories including a last-stride Stewards’ Cup triumph on Zidane.

“It was a great trip,” he remembered. “It made me think.” Twelve months later his thinking as well as his actions on the track see him back on top of the championship race those suspensions lost him last season. When he took the title in 2005, many people put it down as much to industry and the absence of Kieren Fallon as to his own skill. Spencer in 2007 has become a distinctive package.

At 27 and in his 10th season in Britain he has refined the art of riding a waiting race more completely than anyone since the late lamented Harry Wragg, immortalised as “The Head Waiter”. Spencer’s predilection for drawing the bow of his horse’s willingness and ability before firing it at the winning post can be infuriating when the arrow is blocked from ever taking flight. But when it works it is spectacular. Zidane’s victory was about as thrilling as Flat racing can be.

The 70 seconds that it takes to bowl the annual Stewards’ Cup cavalry charge down the hill towards the baying Goodwood crowd are about as hectic a burst of equine action as you see all season. Yet, with two furlongs left, the striped jacket of Spencer locked away in midfield on Zidane, remained as still as in an exercise canter.

“You need to let him find his stride,” the jockey said before adding in enviable understatement, “but when you ask him he really picks up. I knew it was going to be close but he really put his head down and went for the line.” That is more explanation than description because Zidane still had five lengths to find in the final furlong and although he was cutting down last year’s winner Borderlescott all the way to the post it was only by centimetres that he nailed this most competitive of handicaps at the very death.

There was a touch of comedy to the victory because he only came by his stall position of 11 because trainer James Fanshawe had not attended the draw on Thursday and had to receive the least wanted application. So much for the pontifications on the importance of stall positions in the Stewards’ Cup.

For a while in the opening race the comedy seemed to be being played on Spencer by his newly visored mount Sanbuch. Far from being galvanised by the equipment, the three-year-old was the most reluctant of trailers. But somehow Spencer drew that bow and the quirky Sanbuch found himself whizzing up the outside to come searing into the bull.

Results do not always reflect earlier impressions in racing but rarely as completely as with the truly admirable Peeping Fawn in the featured Nassau Stakes. This was her eighth race since she began her career in an unheralded maiden race at Navan on April Fools Day and if you had seen her cantering awkwardly to the start you would have sworn that these fast ground conditions made her one to avoid. The race proved the complete opposite.

It also confirmed Johnny Murtagh’s current position as one of the supreme strategists of the current era. A week after outgunning his King George rivals on Dylan Thomas he gave a masterclass in taking the initiative which outmanoeuvred the chances of an admittedly slightly unwilling looking Mandesha.

A quarter of a mile from home Murtagh committed his Irish Oaks winner for the line at a time when Christophe Soumillon was still behind horses on the French star. In full action Peeping Fawn showed none of the awkwardness of her slower paces and by the time Mandesha was in pursuit, the quarry had flown. Mandesha is as light-actioned as Peeping Fawn is heavy but she puts her head up in a way which makes it difficult for a jockey to get her to buckle down to race.

Mandesha’s trainer has always said that she is better in the autumn but at that stage Peeping Fawn should have the softer going that suits her best. And if she continues to progress like this, few of either sex are likely to be better.

Goodwood was the epitome of high summer yesterday and its success should make racing put its assorted problems into a perspective beyond its constant internal feuds as in the latest nonsense of trainers refusing interviews for the RUK TV Channel.

Perspective is important. As it was a year ago for Jamie Spencer.

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