Racegoers have had an unaccustomed treat this season. The jockeys' championship, dominated six of the past seven years by Kieren Fallon and only in doubt when he was injured, has been a real and riveting contest. Four riders have been in with a serious chance - Fallon, Frankie Dettori, Seb Sanders and Darryll Holland.
It has added real zest to many a racecard with Sanders riding an extraordinary 44 winners in the month of July, Dettori overtaking Fallon to lead briefly in early August then Fallon powering back.
Despite Fallon's arrest last week as part of an investigation into race fixing he was subsequently bailed but not charged racegoers at Kempton last Saturday typically roared on the champion jockey for a brace of wins and then cheered even louder when Frankie Dettori completed a four-timer.
Currently Fallon, with 144 winners, leads the charismatic Italian by eight, with Sanders just another eight behind. Only Holland, who lost a couple of days through injury and had a lean patch in August, seems to have slipped out of the leading pack, another 17 behind.
Several factors have combined to open up this year's contest. Fallon's main employer, the trainer Sir Michael Stoute, started the season slowly. Dettori, who in recent seasons had concentrated on quality rather than quantity, has been a fighter reborn, goaded by criticism last season that he had lost his edge and boosted by Godolphin's strength in depth.
The quietly determined Holland has eased back on globetrotting and reduced his disciplinary brushes with the stewards to mount a serious challenge. But the surprise factor has been the emergence of Sanders, a capable rider for some years who has gained added kudos this season after securing the coveted role of stable jockey to Sir Mark Prescott. When Fallon named Sanders before the season began as his biggest threat some thought he was playing mind games with more obvious challengers now he looks pretty savvy.
Watching the hunch-shouldered Sanders driving away in a race like a power-pack on legs, the determination of a man who had to wait 18 months for his first ride as an apprentice comes through. The pressure of being a title contender does not bother him. “I'm a very competitive person and I'm glad I'm in the thick of it,” he says. Nor is driving 50-60,000 miles a season for rides anything new. “I've pushed myself to the limits every year I've ridden.”Sanders acknowledges the debt to Sir Mark: “He gives you confidence. If you're punctual he's a decent man and I'm always treated with respect.”
He agrees he has improved, and his approach is level-headed: “I try to stick to 8st 7lb. Keep to that and I will last the season. If I tried to do any lighter I wouldn't last until June.”
Sanders is no self-promoter. Ask him to name his best rides and he takes an awkward half minute to volunteer his effort on Bachelor Duke when he won the Irish 2000 Guineas with a perfectly timed swoop in the last 100 yards. And he is realistic about his hopes. Having had that fabulous spell of winners in July and then seen Fallon move away again in August, he says: “I climbed a mountain in July and then I found there was an even bigger one behind it. At one time I got within three winners of Kieren but Sir Michael's horses weren't running very well. I knew they would and sure enough after Goodwood they caught fire.”
But 123 winners is the most he has ridden in a season before. The contest lasts to November 6 and he has passed that total already. “Every one from now on is a bonus.”
Is the weighing-room atmosphere tense between the title contenders? “Not really. I can't stop Kieren or Frankie riding winners. There always is banter and we have a pretty good craic. I play golf with Frankie and others. Unfortunately I always get paired with Frankie and he's crap.”
It is such a close contest that the title outcome could be decided by an injury or a hot-headed moment that brings a few days' suspension. But Sanders insists the contest will never inhibit his effort in a race. “I'm not going to change the way I ride. Not for a minute.”
Fallon's arrest last week has put another factor in the back of the contenders' minds. But arrests are one thing, charges and court cases quite another and all the rivals hope there will be no legal intervention in their personal battle. “If I win,” says Sanders, acknowledging that it would be the dream of his life, “then I want it to be on merit.”