08/11/2011 3:28PM

Arlington: Spencer far better prepared for Million than he was in 2004

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Tod Marks
Cape Blanco was impressive winning last month's Man o' War, but has had to travel back and forth from Ireland twice this summer.

ARLINGTON HEIGHTS, Ill. – The English jockey Jamie Spencer flew under the radar last summer when he returned to Arlington Park for the first time since 2004. Spencer rode Wigmore Hall to a second-place finish in the Secretariat Stakes, but Paddy O’Prado was the story of that race, and Spencer generally escaped attention.

On Saturday, Spencer rides Cape Blanco as the likely favorite in the Arlington Million, a circumstance that will bring racing fans – if not Spencer himself – back to the 2004 Million. That was the year that Spencer, then 24, was the first-call rider for trainer Aidan O’Brien, and that was the year that Spencer found himself disqualified to fourth for interference after crossing the wire first aboard Powerscourt. The nature of the DQ – Powerscourt seemed clearly best in the race, causing trouble behind him while drifting in after making the lead in the stretch – led to widespread criticism of Spencer, who did little to earn redemption in the eyes of American racing fans when he made an apparently premature move on the same horse in the Breeders’ Cup Turf that fall. To make matters worse, Spencer was back home the next summer when Powerscourt proved much the best in the 2005 Million.

By then, Spencer had decided to leave his position with O’Brien’s stable, a position that Spencer, the youngest rider of an English Classic winner at 17, said he was ill-prepared to handle.

“I don’t think I was up to it,” Spencer said in a recent profile in England’s Racing Post. “I felt I was living a lie. I never thought I was as good as people said I was, and without self-belief you have no belief at all.”

Even without a single powerful backer, Spencer has managed to retain his position among the European riding elite. He gave up the mount on Wigmore Hall in the Million to ride Cape Blanco, two of whose owners, Jim and Fitri Hay of Dubai, make a point of using Spencer in big races. And there was nothing suspect about Spencer’s performance last month, when he rode Cape Blanco in the Man o’ War Stakes at Belmont. Cape Blanco got away smoothly, tracked the pace of Mission Approved, took over under confident handling in midstretch and easily held clear Gio Ponti’s late run. It was Spencer’s first win in 28 rides in the United States. Victory number two, in Saturday’s Million, probably would go a long way toward erasing painful memories.