the contrast could not be greater. It has taken Paul Hanagan, Yorkshire’s two-time champion jockey, 15 years of hard graft to land a first ride in the Epsom Derby – the race that defines greatness on the Flat.
Yet Hanagan, now in the prime of his career at the age of 31, knows that his dream day in the saddle aboard Richard Fahey’s outsider Mickdaam is likely to be upstaged by 19-year-old Joseph O’Brien who will become the youngest Derby-winning jockey since Lester Piggott if the red-hot favourite Camelot prevails.
The differences are not just consigned to age. While Hanagan, at 5ft 4ins, is the ideal height, and weight, for a Flat rider, O’Brien towers over him at nearly 6ft – and this could be the Irish jockey’s second, and last, chance at Derby glory before he succumbs to the daily battle with the scales. A career over jumps beckons.
“Let’s just hope we can give Camelot a race,” said Hanagan, who is relishing the opportunity to be reunited with Malton-based Fahey following his decision to become the retained jockey to owner Sheikh Hamdan al-Maktoum.
It is a comment that epitomises the 2012 Investec Derby which has only attracted nine runners – the smallest field in 105 years.
Many attribute this to the presence of Camelot, the nerveless winner of the 2000 Guineas who is said to be one of the best horses ever trained by the pencil-like O’Brien’s father Aidan, whose previous winners in the Epsom blue riband race are Galileo (2001) and High Chaparral a decade ago.
If Camelot does, as expected, conquer Epsom’s unique undulations, he could head to Doncaster’s St Leger in September and a bid to become the first colt to land the Triple Crown since a Piggott-inspired Nijinksy in 1970. Anything less will be viewed as a disappointment at O’Brien’s Ballydoyle stables that has been upstaged recently by equine giants such as Sea The Stars and Frankel.
However, it would be premature to view the Derby as a one-horse race. The select line-up includes the winners of each of the key trials – Mickdaam (Chester Vase); Bonfire (Dante Stakes at York); Main Sequence (Lingfield Derby Trial) and Camelot’s stablemate Astrology (Chester’s Dee Stakes).
Tactics will also be crucial. While there are unlikely to be any outsiders hindering the big guns on the descent to Tattenham Corner – the reason Astrology’s jockey Ryan Moore says the Queen’s horse Carlton House was defeated 12 months ago – O’Brien junior can expect no favours if he finds himself boxed in.
The talented teenager, who came to prominence when guiding Camelot to Racing Post Trophy success at Doncaster last October, will also need to show exemplary horsemanship to keep his super-colt well-balanced over the punishing final two furlongs when Epsom’s uneven camber slopes away from the packed grandstands.
Yet, perversely, Hanagan believes the most crucial part of the race – the aperitif to the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee celebrations – will be the preliminaries, and the nervous parade before the start.
For many horses, says Hanagan, it will be the first time that these colts – still relatively immature three-year-olds – have experienced such noise and tension. As such, the dual champion jockey has sought the wisdom of former Derby-winning jockey Kieren Fallon who, like Frankie Dettori, is without a ride in the big race.
“He says you can’t win the race on the way to the start, but you can lose it and I think that’s very good advice,” said Hanagan. “It’s going to be odd. I’ve had winners before at Epsom on Derby day but never a ride in the big race.
“I’ve always been the one staying behind with the other lads, watching it on the TV in the weighing room, and just wishing I was out there. It’s the race every Flat jockey wants to win – it’s been the one for me ever since I was growing up and thinking about a career in racing.”
Although Hanagan was not in the saddle when Mickdaam confirmed his Derby credentials with a hard-fought victory in the Chester Vase, albeit on soft ground compared to today’s good to firm going, he is surprised at the horse’s transformation.
When the champion jockey prevailed at York last October on Mickdaam, he thought the colt was too immature to become an Epsom contender.
However, a winter campaign in the sun of Dubai under the supervision of top South African trainer Mike de Kock, appears to have been the making of Mickdaam.
“When he won at York, he was still a big baby. It has taken time for the penny to drop – and that he has the ability to win races,” explained Hanagan.
“The winter has probably helped and, with nine runs under his belt, he has more experience than most. That has to help. He’s the type of horse I like. He’s laid back and the uphill finish will suit.”
It is ironic that Mickdaam is a first Derby runner for both Hanagan and Fahey – the reason that the former teamed up with Sheikh Hamdan was to secure more big rides in the key races.
Yet, while his new boss does not have a Derby winner, Hanagan is delighted with the new association and the chance to ride out for different trainers each day. And though he is amongst the pacesetters in this year’s Flat title race, Hanagan holds no championship aspirations. “It’s at the bottom of my list of priorities,” he said emphatically. “Believe me, it’s the last thing on my mind.”
Indeed, it is the strength of Hanagan’s relationship with Fahey that the trainer opted to ask the champion jockey to take the ride rather than stay loyal to journeyman Tony Hamilton who was in the saddle at Chester.
“He’s 33-1 and he’s got to step up on what he’s done but he’ll get the trip and he tries, which always gives you a chance,” said Fahey who endured a nervous build-up after Mickdaam picked up an infection following his Chester win.
“Do I think Mickdaam’s good enough to win it? Probably not. But you never know, you should never be scared of one horse. That one horse, of course, is Camelot. He looks exceptional. He did well to win the Guineas and he should win the Derby. But you never know.”