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Hughes no 20-1 chance to land gripping fight for top spot; Paul Eacott turns the spotlight on the closest jockeys' title race in years.

Byline: Paul Eacott

WHEN Seb Sanders rode 44 winners in July last year, he threw the race for the Flat jockeys' championship - so often a seemingly foregone conclusion - wide open.

Closing to within a couple of winners of perennial champion Kieren Fallon and last season's early pacesetter Frankie Dettori, the astonishing run of Sanders injected life into a betting market that, thanks mainly to the dominance of Fallon over the best part of the last decade, had remained somewhat dormant.

In the end, Fallon's quest for a seventh title came unstuck as Dettori - thanks in no small part to the huge Godolphin team - was crowned champion for the first time since 1995.

With Godolphin's team this year rumoured to be well in excess of the 300 they had in training in 2004, and following Fallon's decision to take up the hot seat at Ballydoyle vacated by Jamie Spencer, Dettori was installed an odds-on chance to retain his title this term.

However, so far this season things have not panned out as the layers believed they would, and far from having put daylight between himself and the peloton, Dettori was last night sitting in joint-sixth place in the table, 17 winners off Spencer, in one of the most open title races for years.

Despite this, Dettori still remains as short as 10-11 favourite with William Hill, even though he has ridden 13 fewer winners than at this time last year, and on only three occasions in the past fortnight has he ridden at an afternoon meeting before travelling on elsewhere in the evening - in sharp contrast to the hunger he was showing 12 months ago.

Rather like Dettori last season, Spencer has set the pace this term, and the bookmakers were forced to take evasive action having offered some fancy prices about the rejuvenated rider early on.

Spencer is clearly happier riding freelance after a turbulent spell in Ireland, but the chances of him landing a first British title without a retainer from a big owner or trainer look remote, and it's probably fair to say that David Evans - who has provided Spencer with most of his wins in 2005 - will not be able to give him enough ammunition to compete on a level playing field with his main rivals as the season progresses.

Anybody who has backed Robert Winston at odds of up to 60 on Betfair must be delighted with the purple patch he is currently going through. Winston was still a general 8-1 chance to steal Dettori's crown last week, although the layers finally appear to have cottoned on to his hot streak and the current odds of around 4-1 appear to be about right.

While the bookmakers are taking no chances with Dettori, Spencer and Winston, it looks as though one or two firms are still underestimating Richard Hughes.

Hughes currently sits eight winners behind Spencer and nine in front ofDettori on the 54 mark, and yet he can still be backed at 20-1 with internet layer SportingOdds, a price that looks overly generous if the signs so far are to prove correct.

After riding a winner at P ontefract on Monday afternoon, Hughes signalled his intentions to deliver a challenge for the title when travelling the 193 miles to Windsor for the evening meeting, where he had a further success.

Having regularly ridden at 8st 6lb this season, Hughes' weight - which would have been a concern for his supporters in the past - is on a par with the likes of Dettori and Spencer, and as retained rider for Khalid Abdullah he has approximately 25 horses with each of Henry Cecil, Roger Charlton, John Gosden, Barry Hills and Amanda Perrett to ride.

Add into the mix the fact that Hughes remains No.1jockey to his father-in-law Richard Hannon, and he looks to have plenty of strength in depth in a year in which, owing to the wide open nature of the contest, the title is likely to be won with the fewest number of winners since Steve Cauthen took top spot with 130 winners in 1984.

Last ten years

wins 2004 Frankie Dettori 192 2003 Kieren Fallon 221 2002 Kieren Fallon 151 2001 Kieren Fallon 1672000 Kevin Darley1999 Kieren Fallon1998 Kieren Fallon1997 Kieren Fallon1996 Pat Eddery186 1995 Frankie Dettori 211

CAPTION(S):

Frankie Dettori W ins so far: 45 W ins in last two weeks: 13 Rank in last five seasons (2000-2004): 0/6/0/7/1; Robert Winston W ins so far: 58 W ins in last two weeks: 17 Last five seasons: 0/0/0/0/6; Jamie Spencer W ins so far: 62 W ins in last two weeks: 13 Last five seasons: 0/9/0/5/0; Ryan Moore W ins so far: 48 W ins in last two weeks: 7 Last five seasons: 0/0/0/0/5; Richard Hughes W ins so far: 54 W ins in last two weeks: 11 Last five seasons: 4/7/2/4/0; Seb Sanders W ins so far: 50 W ins in last two weeks: 12 Last five seasons: 7/0/3/6/3
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Title Annotation:Sports
Publication:The Racing Post (London, England)
Date:Jun 29, 2005
Words:850
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