AT least Paul Hanagan can enjoy today’s end-of-season finale at Doncaster in the knowledge that he cannot lose the jockeys’ title that he has fought so heroically to defend.
His great Yorkshire rival Silvestre de Sousa has to win on each of his four booked mounts, and hope the champion draws a blank, just to draw level in a pulsating title race.
This is the third time in five seasons that the championship will be settled on the final day of the season after an eight-month struggle for supremacy.
Hanagan, who has competed in 1,100 races, was tantalisingly left on the cusp of becoming the first Northern rider to defend the Flat championship when de Sousa won last night’s Wolverhampton finale on Raucous Behaviour.
In golf matchplay parlance, the title-holder is dormie four – but that only tells part of a dramatic penultimate day of the campaign.
It began when Thirsk-based de Sousa rode a quickfire double at Ffos Las to breathe new life into an increasingly forlorn challenge.
He then became stuck in Friday night traffic as bad weather grounded the plane that he intended to take from South Wales to the West Midlands track.
Yet surrender was still not an option for the man who had made a detour to Australia to ride Fox Hunt in the Melbourne Cup on Tuesday, finishing just out of the places.
“I’m going to take it right to the end,” said de Sousa.
Though none of the three rides that de Sousa missed at Wolverhampton won their respective races, Hanagan edged six clear when 11-1 shot Berbice miraculously won for the first time in 36 races.
As the Malton rider unsaddled, hopeful his title was secure, the Brazilian dashed into the weighing room with seconds to spare to secure a winning ride on Trojan Rocket with Hanagan half-a-length in arrears on runner-up Know No Fear.
De Sousa’s dream was still alive – just. Two uneventful races followed before kicking for home on 8-1 chance Raucous Behaviour to win his fourth race in a frenetic eight hours.
It left Hanagan on the 165 winner mark, and de Sousa on a career-best 161 victories. But with de Sousa having just four booked rides today – three intended mounts were withdrawn at the final declaration stage yesterday – Hanagan should be able to savour the greatest triumph of his career.
His lead is double that of 12 months ago when his advantage over Richard Hughes was a slender two triumphs, and the title was only settled after Doncaster’s penultimate race.
“I think Paul has won it and all credit to him. I’ll be giving it my best shot,” said de Sousa.
Meanwhile Hanagan said: “Fair play to Silvestre to ride four winners today – he’s riding out of his skin. It would have been nice to go to Doncaster knowing that I’d won it outright, but it’ll also be nice to go there knowing that I’m going to be champion again, even if it’s joint-champion.”
Hanagan, only the third Northern champion in 106 years after Elijah Wheatley (1905) and Kevin Darley (2000), will also win the Yorkshire Post’s Cock O’ the North cap which is traditionally donned on the region’s winning-most rider.
But York-based Darley, who lost his crown in 2001 to Kieren Fallon when the Irishman was at the peak of his powers, expects Hanagan and de Sousa to be genuine title contenders for the foreseeable future.
“It just shows you how things can change,” said Darley, also chief executive of the Professional Jockeys’ Association. “When I won, it was thought to be a one-off. The same with Paul last year.
“That Paul has been able to back up that triumph again shows how competitive the racing is in Yorkshire and the North. I don’t think people realise the hard work involved as they criss-cross the country – it is the media demands, the constant banter in the weighing room, the travelling is a nightmare. Both missed a win this week because flights were delayed.”
Darley says both Hanagan and Thirsk-based de Sousa have improved out of all recognition, and should not be simply perceived as “grafters”.
“I think Paul is one of the most improved riders over the past two or three years,” he told the Yorkshire Post. “He can ride a hold-up horse. He can make the running. He can do it all.
“Silvestre is like Willie Carson. He is all upper-body strength. Paul is strong, but the diversity in his riding has grown; Silvestre is a little powerhouse.”
Darley also believes Hanagan and de Sousa’s respective trainers now give them parity with the likes of former champions like Ryan Moore, Kieren Fallon and Jamie Spencer – or emerging talents such as William Buick.
“With Silvestre, he’s had Mark Johnston’s stable behind him,” said Darley. “And the way Richard Fahey’s horses have been running, Paul is always going to have a platform – even though he has said never again. You can’t plan to win the title. It depends on many things, like bans, injury and having a good start, but I can certainly see more Northern-based riders winning, or being thereabouts, in future years.”
Today will be a day of celebration at Doncaster. North Yorkshire’s Julie Burke will win the Jan Wilson Memorial Trophy that is presented to the leading female apprentice in honour of the rider who was killed in an arson attack in Malton two years ago. Martin Harley takes the men’s award. Prince Khalid Abdullah, owner of wonderhorse Frankel, is champion owner, while Richard Hannon defended his trainers’ title.
The presentations also see the Yorkshire Post and Racing For Change present the Cock o’ the North cap that is traditionally presented to the region’s most successful rider. A longstanding tradition, the concept was revised so Northern-based riders had a chance to achieve some recognition for their efforts because they were disadvantaged by the preponderance of meetings in the South.
Yet, with many big name Flat jockeys concentrating on the major races domestically and overseas, there are opportunities for the likes of Paul Hanagan and Silvestre de Sousa to win their sport’s greatest endurance test. They are deserving pacesetters heading a golden era for Yorkshire racing.