Few title races come close to the jockeys' championship for thrilling - and exhausting - brutality

Jamie Spencer 
Jamie Spencer described his title-winning season as 'without doubt, the worst year of my life' Credit: Getty Images

The gripping finish to the Premier League, which concluded with Manchester City beating Liverpool by a point last Sunday after the pair had gone stride for stride since Christmas, brought to mind some of the epic jockeys’ championships of recent times.

Occasionally, once every 10 years or so, the jockeys’ title race has caught the public imagination by going down to the last day and has transcended the sport apart from anything because of the sheer effort, both mental and physical, involved.

The Flat jockeys’ championship, decided by winners rather than prize money, has been in existence since 1840. For years, it ran for 32 weeks of the turf season from the Lincoln meeting at Doncaster in March until the November Handicap, also at Doncaster.

Winning the title comfortably is one thing but when it is close it must surely be one of the most gruelling contests in sport; up to 12 rides a day, seven days a week, criss-crossing the country in planes, trains and automobiles, leaving home at 6am, often not back by midnight, and living on fresh air.

In 2015, in an attempt to give the championship more fanfare, it was pruned to run from the first Classic, around May 1, to British Champions Day in mid-October, reducing it to 24 weeks. Instead of giving it more relevance, now no one is entirely clear when it starts and finishes, while there is more than enough good stuff happening on Champions Day at Ascot that if it ever comes down to the wire again it would be overshadowed by the quality of the racing on offer.

However, had the British Horseracing Authority announced that it was truncating the title race for the sanity and physical well-being of the jockeys involved, it might have been seen as being slightly ahead of its time because, for the vast majority of those involved in a dogfight for the title, it has been a case of once bitten, twice shy.

Silvestre de Sousa is reigning champion flat jockey Credit: getty images

Jamie Spencer, who shared the 2007 title with Seb Sanders – they rode 190 winners each – described it as “without doubt, the worst year of my life – I wouldn’t recommend it. You spend the whole time watching your rival and what he does. Never again”.

The first really intense title race that I remember was the Steve Cauthen-Pat Eddery battle of 1987.

Cauthen, the “Kentucky Kid” who had been brought over from the United States – where he had won the Triple Crown on Affirmed – by Robert Sangster in 1979 as a teenage riding sensation, was just about the coolest man I ever saw ride a horse.

His narrow lead had been due, in part, to the Great Storm of that October when Newmarket’s Dewhurst meeting was postponed because of damage to the stands. At late notice, he diverted to Catterick, where his boss, Henry Cecil, had a couple of runners, won both and, eventually, beat Eddery by two. In pursuit of the title, Cauthen took in racecourses he would never have dreamed of visiting under normal circumstances, including Musselburgh and Hamilton. At Musselburgh, he needed to lose a few pounds in the sauna but the sweat box was not working.

“I panicked,” he recalled, “and spent all morning running round the city looking for a sauna. Eventually, I took a room in a local bed and breakfast so I could just sit in a hot bath for an hour but when I ran the taps only ice-cold water came out. By the time I got back to the racecourse, they had fixed the sauna.”

The last time it went down to the last day was when Paul Hanagan beat Richard Hughes by two wins in 2010. To celebrate his jockey’s first title and the great season that his own yard had enjoyed, his trainer Richard Fahey decided that they would fly to Las Vegas the moment it was over.

Fahey’s hope that he, with his stable jockey, would paint the town red fell at the first. The exhausted Hanagan went to bed the first night and did not wake up for 48 hours. On the way back, as a thank-you to his boss, Hanagan said he would upgrade them to first class but his credit card was declined and, compounding Fahey’s gloom, he had to pay for that, too.