When the eddies of human interaction sweep the affairs of man into public consciousness, we always find ourselves gripped. But the conservative atmosphere of racing rarely allows such interaction to surface. Of course, the appetite for salacious interest in the baser aspects of human dealings has been used and abused by the tabloid press, reaching a nadir with the recent closure of the News of the World. But this represents an extreme which should not deny reasonable interest in the psychology of interaction.
Take the trainer-jockey relationship between Aidan O’Brien and Jamie Spencer. Due to various factors – only some of which were apparent – the two were linked professionally for only a brief time. Spencer’s tenure as stable jockey at Ballydoyle lasted only the 2004 season, after which he resigned to return to riding in Britain.
Spencer was champion jockey in Ireland when with O’Brien. But that was a pyrrhic victory in a season which was pretty much a disaster otherwise. The truth is that O’Brien had few horses of genuine top-class merit, but the nature of recollection is that rides in which Spencer made mistakes or was the victim of bad luck are most vivid for many.
Chief among these were two rides at the Breeders’ Cup at Lone Star Park that October: on Powerscourt in the Turf – a mistimed effort off an already strong gallop – and Antonius Pius earlier in the Mile, a perfectly sound ride on the runner-up which was sabotaged only by his recalcitrant partner.
A division between Spencer and O’Brien was clearly drawn
Both the abbreviated nature of Spencer’s pairing with O’Brien and its lack of consummation with the production of champion horses so much associated with the yard, left questions about Spencer’s nerve in a high-pressure situation (this is richly ironic since nobody who has watched racing for more than five minutes would associate the same fallibility with his style of riding).
The pair spoke little in public of their split. But their feelings became more apparent seven years after the event, when Spencer steered home Fame And Glory for O’Brien in this year’s Gold Cup at Royal Ascot. “I can be a bit intense sometimes and I didn’t blame him for running away from me,” said the trainer. “We are getting along a lot better now,” said the jockey.
The force bringing O’Brien and Spencer back together is his contract to ride for Fame And Glory’s majority owner Dr Jim Hay, a rising force in the bloodstock world with the spending power to sate his ambition. But it’s worth remembering Spencer did partner the 2007 St James’s Palace Stakes winner Excellent Art for O’Brien after their split.
Nevertheless, a division between them was clearly drawn, which required a great ride in the Ascot feature and a public display of mutual contrition to resolve. But the story of their relationship does not end there.
If Spencer’s ride on Fame And Glory was good, his display on Cape Blanco, part-owned by Hay, in the Grade 1 Man o’War Stakes at Belmont in July fully merits the description ‘magnificent’. The adjective is particularly apposite not because of the way Spencer positioned his mount close to a moderate pace and gained first run – though this was praiseworthy in itself – but for a more subtle and compelling reason, one which may be a function of human entanglement following the theme of this piece. While it is fair to observe that Spencer was free with the whip on Cape Blanco, that was just one, admittedly regrettable, part of a corporeal will to win arguably redolent of a newly rediscovered ambition for the big time.
In a subsequent interview, Spencer was keen to attest to his foremost commitment to Hay, no doubt anticipating the theme of the interview may be to examine his fresh association with O’Brien instead.
There can be no doubt of the validity of Spencer’s assertion, not least because he went on to enthuse over Hay’s potential to establish himself among Flat racing’s ownership elite. But, whether Spencer was prepared to admit it either to us or himself, there seemed more still to his tour de force on Cape Blanco.
Anyone who calls on Spencers’ services for Group 1s now is getting the complete package as a rider
O’Brien has Ryan Moore to call on, as well as long-standing Ballydoyle riders like Seamie Heffernan and Colm O’Donoghue. Of the former, Spencer himself generously described the Eclipse-winning ride on So You Think in glowing terms. So, it is not that Spencer has reason to be disingenuous over his commitment to Hay or angling for rides on Ballydoyle inmates outside his retainer’s interests. Instead, I believe that we are seeing a rider who has recovered tremendous determination to colour in the outline he first described as a 17-year-old apprentice on Tarascon in the 1998 Irish 1,000 Guineas – the prodigy who was praised to the skies and, in effect, set up to fail directly as a result. And proving that to O’Brien, the trainer from whom he “ran away”, is fundamental.
Spencer may well be proved right that Hay is the only conduit he needs for a return to the big time. But I doubt that is the only way events could play out. Anyone who calls on his services for Group 1s now is getting the complete package as a rider: one who, according to circumstances, can be strong or subtle, patient or direct. And that’s just not a combination commonly expressed.
I can only wonder how events will throw Spencer and O’Brien together but cannot resist thinking about the potential for it to happen. Because there is something unresolved between them professionally, which may just inspire magic on the track. And that’s what brings sport to life.