Champion’s big switch proves a classic move

IT was the tearful reaction of Paul Hanagan’s family after the rider’s runway victory aboard the talented Taghrooda – a first triumph in an elite British Classic – that illustrated the significance of this landmark victory for Flat racing’s most modest of champions.

Paul Hanagan.

“They stayed at home and watched it on television. As soon as I crossed the line, my wife Anna was in tears and our eldest son Josh, who is seven, started crying and then his little brother Sam, who is only four, started crying,” said the jockey with palpable pride. “He then turned round to his Mummy and said ‘Why are we crying? We should be happy’. They were old enough to realise what a big day it was for their Daddy. And, believe me, that makes it even more special.”

The Hanagan family were not alone in struggling to contain their emotions. By all accounts, the roof was nearly lifted off Catterick racecourse’s slightly antiquated weighing room by the loud cheers of jockeys as the John Gosden-trained Taghrooda streaked clear of a classy field.

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These are friends and rivals in awe of Hanagan’s quiet determination that saw him win back-to-back championships in 2010 and 2011 – he was just the second Northern-based jockey to do so in more than 100 years – before teaming up with racing royalty to become the retained rider to Sheikh Hamdan al-Maktoum, a brother to Dubai’s ruler Sheikh Mohammed.

Taghrooda (centre) ridden by Paul Hanagan wins the Investec Oaks.

Now in his third season carrying the blue silks with white epaulets worn with such distinction by Willie Carson and, more recently, Richard Hills, this win was a vindication of Hanagan’s difficult decision to give up the gruelling pursuit of championships, a daunting eight-month stamina test, and start accumulating the Classic and Grade One races which define careers.

Putting the quality of wins before their quantity has not been easy. The well-spoken 33-year-old is the first to admit that he missed the routine of Richard Fahey’s Malton stables, where he spent more than a decade learning his trade, as he adapted to the demands of a high-profile role.

It was why there was such an audible shriek of ‘yes’ from Hanagan, normally the most reserved of jockeys, as Taghrooda galloped past Epsom’s winning post.

“To be called a Classic-winning jockey, it still hasn’t sunk in,” Hanagan told The Yorkshire Post in an exclusive interview. “It feels great. It’s what I’ve worked so hard for. If it wasn’t for those two titles, I wouldn’t be an Oaks-winning jockey – they put me on the map.

“I was just delighted for the Shadwell Stud team – and Sheikh Hamdan in particular. His Highness has put a lot into the sport and he’s had a few lean years by his standards. He’s a gent. It’s taken a bit of time to gel, but we’re on the same kind of wavelength. I speak to him every other day and his Channel Four interview with Clare Balding after the Oaks showed what the sport means to him.”

In an irony of timing, Hanagan broke off from this interview to speak to his ‘boss’ and discuss riding plans for Royal Ascot next week.

Yet Hanagan, back on familiar territory today for York’s Macmillan charity day meeting, heads to Flat racing’s Olympics with the confidence – and belief – that he has earned the right to ride some of the world’s best thoroughbreds following a career built on hard graft from the moment he followed father Geoff into Terry Caldwell’s yard near Warrington at the age of 14 and decided that he wanted to become a jockey – he had never previously ridden a horse.

It is why he strived so hard to win a second title in 2011. He wanted to prove that his first championship, secured when he beat arch-rival Richard Hughes at Doncaster on the very final day of the 2010 campaign, was no fluke.

It was why he was not satisfied when Sky Bet York Stakes Mukhadram, trained by Skipton-born William Haggas, was an unlucky loser at Royal Ascot 12 months ago when caught on the line. No one remembers the runner-up in racing.

Now he has broken his Classic duck, one can sense the relief as the burden of expectation is lifted. “It was very difficult at first because I had been with one person, Richard Fahey, for so long,” said Hanagan, whose family have relocated to Newmarket for the summer, and Dubai for the winter months.

“Now it is 10 different trainers who all like to train their own way. With Richard, it was second nature. I just got on and did whatever it took. I was used to doing seven or eight lots in the morning and being flat out. Now it is one or two lots – and not every day. It took time to adjust, especially the logistics of keeping everyone happy and fitting in with them.

“Today I rode out two lots for Roger Varian at 6.15am and then Mike de Kock’s Soft Falling Rain, who is over here from South Africa for Royal Ascot. If you told Richard Fahey it was a busy morning, he wouldn’t stop laughing and say I’d gone soft.

“To begin with, I couldn’t pronounce the names of the horses. But, as time has gone by, I’ve got more of a rapport with the trainers, jockeys and staff where I ride out.

“Now the hardest challenge each day is the M25. With Richard, there were 10 tracks within an hour.

“Mukhadram at York last year was a big boost. Even before I got the job, William Haggas had been very good to me. The same with Taghrooda’s trainer John Gosden, who has been an absolute class act for me. He puts no pressure on me whatsoever.

“The Oaks was on my mind for a month beforehand. Just little things when you opened the paper and saw people talking about the filly.

“The only worry was coming down Tattenham Hill when the horse on the inner was trying to get out and gave Taghrooda a bump. It set her alight and she was on the wrong leg for a few strides. Coming round Tattenham Corner, it was just how I imagined it – a length down turning in with a double handful. When I cried out ‘yes’, it was just the relief and what it meant. Not just to myself, but my family.”

As for the future, Hanagan’s rides at York today, where he has been the winning-most rider for the past five years, include Zaraee in the feature Betbright Charity Sprint.

There is the small matter of Mukhadram taking on Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe heroine Treve, arguably the best horse in training, in the Prince of Wales’s Stakes on Wednesday.

And there is talk of Taghrooda lining up in the Arc, the blue riband race of European racing, this October.

Yet, for almost the first time in his career, Hanagan is content to enjoy the present – and the hard-earned right to be introduced as a Classic-winning jockey.

“I definitely like the sound of that,” he said.