paul hanagan’S earliest Epsom Derby memory is a vivid one – Nashwan and Willie Carson streaking clear in 1989 to win the showpiece race in the iconic blue and wide colours of Sheikh Hamdan Al Makdoum.
He was just eight at the time. He would not sit on a horse for another six years. Yet today it is Hanagan who is being entrusted with Sheikh Hamdan’s famous silks when he rides Massaat in the 237th renewal of the most famous Flat race in the world.
It’s been some rollercoaster ride for the likable 35-year-old who made his name in Yorkshire with his long-time boss, mentor and friend Richard Fahey, and became champion jockey in 2010 and 2011, before being offered one of the most sought-after jobs in his sport.
In a wide open Derby with no standout favourite, a strong case can be made for Massaat who was second in Newmarket’s 2000 Guineas and is the highest-rated horse in today’s ultra-competitive 16-strong field.
A first runner for Owen Burrows, the rookie trainer served his apprenticeship with the legendary Sir Michael Stoute who is seeking a sixth Derby win today with last month’s emphatic Newbury winner Ulysses the pick of his two runners.
“I think I’ve got a decent chance,” Hanagan told The Yorkshire Post before partnering the Fahey-trained Imshivalla to victory at Epsom yesterday.
“He ran a great race in the Guineas and I wasn’t surprised that he finished second to Galileo Gold. I rode him in a piece of work the week before the race and he was really good. I knew he would run a big race.
“The big question mark, if I’m being honest, is the mile and a half trip. He’s not bred to get a mile and a quarter, but I think he will stay.
“I have tell you, he took some pulling up at Newmarket after the Guineas.
“Whatever he did in the Guineas, he was going to improve both mentally and physically.
“He’s quite straightforward, but you just don’t know about Epsom.”
The unknown is the unique mile and a half race that will confront horse and rider at 4.30pm.
The Derby is a Classic like no other – Epsom Downs in the centre of the course is a carnival-like fairground on Derby day – and the steep rise up Tattenham Hill before a sharp downhill descent and gallop up the home straight remains the sternest test in thoroughbred racing.
Sixteen horses scrambling for position will be a sight to behold. It’s not unusual for runners to become unbalanced in the pulsating closing stages, their tiring legs not helped by a camber that takes them towards the cheering crowds who will be perched on the top of a fleet of double decker buses.
As such, Hanagan is aware that the Derby cannot be won on the way to the start, but it can be lost if a horse loses its cool.
Fortunately his experience on Taghrooda in 2014, when the filly won the Epsom Oaks, will stand him in good stead.
“I remember Taghrooda. She was very relaxed and took it all in,” recalled Hanagan whose only previous Derby ride came in 2012 when he was fifth on the Fahey-trained Mickdaam in a nine-runner race which was not frenetic.
“I went out there with Taghrooda and treated it like a normal race. You are aware that it is a big race, but you do have to put it out of your mind.
“It’s going to be different this year with such a big field. It’s huge. It could be messy. You just want to bounce out, get a good position and keep it.
“I remember watching Nashwan win as a kid. I still can’t believe I’m riding in the same colours off Sheikh Hamdan. It is something I can be proud of.”
As for the rest, it is 35 years since the ill-fated Shergar turned the Derby into a one-horse race – BBC radio commentator Peter Bromley said “you need a telescope to see the rest” – and provide the aforementioned Stoute with the first of five wins.
Yet Stoute could not be more bullish about Ulysses. As well as being sired by a Derby-winner in Galileo, the horse’s dam Light Shift won the Oaks in 2007.
The colt’s second at Leicester to Imperial Aviator looks solid form – the winner is one of the favourites for tomorrow’s French Derby – and Ulysses could not have been more impressive at Newbury last month.
“I’ve always loved him,” said Stoute. “We didn’t have him fully fit at Leicester, but we needed to get moving.
“He could have not have done better than he did at Newbury last time. He is a beautifully-balanced, good-actioned horse and I think he should handle Epsom well.”
The Godolphin team fire a twin assault, with Jim Bolger’s Irish challenger Moonlight Magic joined by the Andre Fabre-trained French raider Cloth Of Stars.
The latter is interesting because Fabre won the race in 2011 with Pour Moi, the year teenage jockey Mickael Barzalona started celebrating victory before the horse had even hit the front.
However Barzalona cut a confident figure after partnering Cloth Of Stars around Epsom during a public workout last week and it would not be the greatest of surprise if the prize went to France.
This is because Wings Of Desire, the top British-trained runner, is very inexperienced. He only made his racecourse debut in April and the horse’s Dante win at York last month was just a third career start.
That said, jockey Frankie Dettori and trainer John Gosden know what it takes after Golden Horn triumphed last year.
“I’ve got a good favourite’s chance and the forecast rain doesn’t do us any harm,” said Dettori, the swagger self-evident in his voice.
“He’ll definitely stay, and being out of Pivotal, any cut in the ground would be OK, too.
“Make no mistake, the Derby is the ultimate test of a racehorse and it challenges them in every way.
“It tests stamina, balance, everything. Winning the Derby is no fluke, only the best will come through it.”
The other imponderable is Aidan O’Brien – the Irish trainer, seeking a sixth win like Stoute – is responsible for five of the 16 runners.
Though top jockey Ryan Moore is on US Army Ranger, the horse’s win at Chester last month over the likes of Biodynamic – the sole Yorkshire runner in today’s race – was workmanlike at best.
“With him (US Army Ranger), we obviously knew there was a chance that he might find Chester very strange,” said O’Brien.
“Ideally, we would have preferred a faster pace which would have made it a little more straightforward for the second half of the race.
“When he came up the straight, he was in cruise control, rather than galloping, and hopefully that was greenness. He is a very exciting horse.”
As for Paul Hanagan, he just hopes Massaat lasts the course. Five years ago, the pre-Derby debate revolved around the fact that the then champion jockey - Hanagan himself – did not have a Derby ride.
Now he has a chance of replicating what Nashwan and his childhood hero Carson did 27 years ago. “You do have to pinch yourself at how well it has gone,” added Hanagan, as the focus of his career switches from the quantity of wins which enabled him to become champion to the quality of rides.
Starting in the Epsom Derby, still the biggest Flat race of all.