PAUL HANAGAN is relishing the prospect of favouritism ahead of the fabulous filly Taghrooda’s date with destiny in tomorrow’s Qatar Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe – the pinnacle of Flat racing in Europe.
Even though it will be the former champion jockey’s first ride in the Arc, he is totally undaunted by the formidable challenge that will be posed by 19 top-class opponents and an unfavourable draw on the outer.
After all, this is the quiet man of racing who has always allowed his riding to do the talking from the moment that he walked into the Ryedale yard of Malcolm Jefferson to begin a career which has taken this unassuming individual to his sport’s summit.
He handled the pressure of expectation when Taghrooda won the Epsom Oaks in scintillating style – Hanagan’s first ride in the fillies’ Classic.
Horse and jockey were even more impressive when beating Britain and Ireland’s top middle distance horses in a vintage renewal of the King George VI And Queen Elizabeth Stakes in late July. Once again, Hanagan was winning Ascot’s signature race at his first attempt.
Now the 34-year-old faces the ultimate test of his career when the John Gosden-trained Taghrooda attempts to bounce back from a narrow reverse to Aidan O’Brien’s Tapestry in the Darley Yorkshire Oaks by conquering Europe. For those looking for lucky omens, this will be Hanagan’s debut Arc appearance.
“People are saying I don’t have the experience of riding at Longchamp,” the 34-year-old told The Yorkshire Post in an exclusive interview.
“I keep telling them I had first ride in the Oaks on Taghrooda and she won, I had my first ride in the King George on her and we won and now I’m having my first ride in the Arc. Hopefully she can keep the winning thread going.
“Taghrooda, she’s fine. She just took a bit of time to get over her race at York. She’s so laid back that she just eats and sleeps and goes through the motions.
“When I rode her in a piece of track work at Newmarket last week, she was back to her old self. She woke up and it did her the world of good. We didn’t want to make excuses for York, but we think she was coming into season and she didn’t give me a winning feel – that burst of acceleration – turning into the straight. Even going to the start, she wasn’t 100 per cent.
“It’s also the only time my wife Anna has come to see Taghrooda race. We’re not superstitious or anything, but she’s staying at home tomorrow with our boys Josh and Sam and watching the race on TV.”
If the resurgent blue and white colours of Sheikh Hamdan al Maktoum are first past the post on the Bois de Boulogne, the cheers from the Hanagan household will be so loud that they might be audible in Paris.
The English Channel may also be in danger of overflowing with tears.
After all, it is the Hanagan family who know how hard the jockey has worked to become more than the equal of Flat racing’s most illustrious names.
Told originally that he was too small to ride, he has spent the past two decades proving people wrong – firstly when he became just the third Northern-based Flat jockey to win the title race in 2010.
He proved this was no fluke by successfully defending the title before being asked to become Sheikh Hamdan’s retained rider at the end of 2012.
Hanagan is clearly at ease with the demands of the role.
This renowned workaholic even allowed himself a couple of days off to prepare mentally for the Arc, though he was not happy when his beloved Liverpool Football Club lost their Champions League clash in Basle when superstar striker Mario Balotelli looked totally disinterested.
It is a far cry from the day, nearly two decades ago, that he arrived at Malcolm Jefferson’s yard after the Norton trainer was recommended by former jockey Peter Caldwell.
It soon became clear to Jefferson that his new apprentice did not have the physical build for the rough and tumble of jump racing.
“He came to me during school holidays, and then when he left school,” said Jefferson. “He spent a year with us and I gave him his first ride at Haydock on a horse called Stone Beck who was fourth. I phoned up Richard Fahey one morning and said, ‘We have this kid and he is one of the nicest lads you will ever meet and I think he will make it as a Flat jockey’.
“That’s how Paul ended up down the road at Richard’s.
“He was never cocky, never has been, and did everything you asked. We had a little horse Over The Beck who could take a keen hold. I said ‘Paul, don’t let him get away with you’. “It was a little test, you always challenge your riders, and Paul, all six stone 12lb of him, managed. He was a good listener.
“He never stops learning. You learn all the time and I have been in this job 40-odd years. When he comes up to Malton gallops, he remembers everybody. He was up there a few weeks ago and he saw John, our gallops man, and walked over and shook his hand. He’s proved everything.
“He was champion jockey and was wanted by Sheikh Hamdan. Why wouldn’t he? Paul’s a gentleman, and there’s not many of them about in racing.
“I spoke to him the other night because he had ridden for us and he says Taghrooda is working marvellously and the Arc is a great race for three-year-olds.”
As for Hanagan, he remembers those formative days with fondness. “The experience I got there, first with Malcolm and then Richard. – without those two guys, I wouldn’t be the person I am today.
“If someone had told me all those years ago that I would end up riding the favourite for the Arc, a race won by great horses and great jockeys, I would have pinched myself. I did win at the Arc meeting in 2011 on Wootton Bassett, and that success – it was a first Group One for myself and Richard – gives me a lot of confidence. This is what I’ve been working for since I first joined Malcolm Jefferson’s. You’ve got to look foward to the challenge.”
Tomorrow’s English runners also includes the multiple Group One winner Al Kazeem and Kingston Hill who will bid to become the first horse to win the Ladbrokes St Leger and Arc in the same season. However, the draw has not been kind to Andrea Atzeni’s mount who will start widest of all and who, like Taghrooda, will want a strong early pace so as not to be left on the outer for most of the race.
As well as Tapestry, Ireland’s Aidan O’Brien saddles 2013 Epsom Derby hero Ruler Of The World and Chicquita. The French challenge is headed by reigning champion Treve; William Buick’s mount Ivanhowe carries the hopes of Germany and Harp Star, Gold Ship and Just A Way bid to become the first Japanese winners of the Arc, which dates back to 1920.
Yet, with just 8st 8lb to carry because of her age and weight allowances, the odds are in Taghrooda’s favour if she is back to her best. This is the weight and profile which enabled Treve to prevail 12 months ago and Paul Hanagan has no qualms about Taghrooda’s temperament: “She can hold her own, she won’t shy from anything really.”
Nor will Taghrooda’s jockey.