Jamie Spencer’s U-turn a bonus for everyone
Enigmatic jockey’s decision to carry on is just another page in the fairy tale
Jamie Spencer has been champion jockey in both Ireland and Britain and has won 33 Group races worldwide. Photograph: Morgan Treacy/Inpho.
Trade Storm’s odds always indicated a neat fairytale-finale for Jamie Spencer in Hong Kong over the weekend was a long-shot. In contrast the odds about his jockey sooner or later U-turning on a decision to retire at 34 would were a lot shorter. But no one could have bet on the U-turn coming so soon. Trying to second guess Spencer though has always been a perilous task.
It is a decade since racing’s fair-haired protege was presumed a busted-flush, a worn-out shell of the confident youngster who’d assumed the most coveted job in racing at Aidan O’Brien’s Ballydoyle stables just a year previously.
Befuddled by a perfect storm of a rare poor crop of horses at the world’s most powerful bloodstock empire, and the inevitable pressure and attention that came with being entrusted to try and win on them, Spencer quit, famously commenting: “It doesn’t matter how rich you are if you go to bed unhappy.”
Within another year, Spencer was Britain’s champion jockey, acclaimed again as one of the most outstanding, yet enigmatic, jockeys produced in Ireland.
It was a prime example of the steely resilience underneath the silky skill which at times has been outrageous enough to allow Spencer somehow become pigeonholed among those sporting proteges tagged as unfulfilled talents.
The criteria that tags the former European Footballer of the Year Michael Owen in such a bracket is as severe as the one which suggests the double-major winning golfer Sandy Lyle should be tearing at the walls every night with what-might-have-been nightmares, or that Mark Phillipoussis was a flop tennis player because he “only” got to the finals of Wimbledon and the US Open.
This was a 17-year-old able to win a classic as an apprentice. A kid lauded by the gimlet-eyed gambler Barney Curley as the best he’d seen in half a century and described by no less a judge than legendary trainer Edward O’Grady as “uniquely gifted”, so gifted he could cross codes, win at the Cheltenham festival, and admit to wondering if jumping was really the game for him.
Spencer is so naturally gifted that a perception of dilettantism has continually lurked around him, a suspicion he can be more concerned with the aesthetics of winning prettily than simply winning, something a rather detached public persona has possibly further contributed to.
A popular figure among his peers, his media utterances have usually been guarded and restrained, a tendency no doubt strengthened by media examination of his marriage break-up to the Channel 4 presenter Emma Spencer.
Even so he has managed to catch everyone, especially the media, on the hop with his decision to continue a riding career that has scaled colossal heights while simultaneously making him one of the most polarising figures within racing.
The depth of dichotomy is most obvious on social-media where his critics are especially virulent. Saddled with the unimaginative sobriquet “Frank” by anonymously brave keyboard oracles, Spencer’s tendency towards what many see as extravagant waiting tactics has made him a near-cartoon figure, which might be great fun dishing out but must have an impact on the recipient, no matter how casually the figure at the centre of such venom affects to dismiss it.
The cartoon has extended to supposedly meaningful references to how a succession of riding jobs with racing’s most high-profile outfits, Coolmore, Godolphin and, latterly, Qatar Racing, have been notably short-term, with an inference of flakiness that this latest volte-face will probably only cement.
Through it all he has been sustained by a steadfast faith in his own ability, particularly to realise that the speed a horse gallops at matters almost as much at the start as it does at the finish. Distributing that speed most efficiently through a race requires courage because it leaves a jockey open to flak if it appears a horse has been asked to challenge too late. The optics can look bad but it’s no coincidence that speed-figure experts eulogise Spencer.
Optics though have always been of variable worth in relation to the Tipperary man. It is 18 years since a cherubic Tintin lookalike, who looked too delicate to be tangling on the track with hard-men such as Michael Kinane and Johnny Murtagh, won his first race at Downpatrick.
Spencer’s late change-of-mind on continuing his career in the saddle is likely to further cement some perceptions but the substance has always been different and critics left underwhelmed by a career featuring champion jockey titles in both Britain and Ireland and 33 Group One races worldwide already, are long odds against to be overwhelmed by anything.
The suspicion always was that he would only be properly appreciated when he was gone. The hope lingered that he in turn would miss the thrill of competition too much not to come back at some stage. This looks a win-win for everyone, but especially Spencer.