Turf topics: Hanagan tipped to keep nose in front of champion

SEB Sanders knows how difficult it is for unheralded riders to become champion jockey. The plumber's son dead-heated with Jamie Spencer three years ago after a titanic struggle that was settled by the very last race of the season.

He can therefore empathise with Paul Hanagan, the unexpected leader of this year's title race who is in the form of his life ahead of today's John Smith's Cup meeting at York following another eyecatching double on Knavesmire yesterday.

Hanagan, stable jockey to Malton trainer Richard Fahey, rides

Demolition for his boss in today's 150,000 feature, a race that the same in-form combination won with Vintage Premium eight years ago. The horse to beat is Imposing, the mount of champion jockey Ryan Moore, who is in no mood to surrender his title.

The prospect of ice-cool Moore, fresh from completing the Derby and Oaks double, battling it out with 29-year-old Hanagan, the new hero of Yorkshire racing, is a tantalizing one for the tens of thousands of racegoers at Knavesmire today.

Coral became the first bookmaker to make Hanagan the new odds-on title favourite on Thursday and he moved 17 clear of his rivals after two winners yesterday.

Yet it will not be easy according to Sanders who recalls being around 20 clear of Spencer at the time of the corresponding meeting in 2007. Hanagan's advantage is marginally less after Moore and Richard Hughes, now the only other genuine contenders in the title race, enjoyed several high-profile winners at Newmarket's July meeting.

"There's a long way to go but Paul's given himself every chance," said Sanders, speaking yesterday at York before partnering Motrice to success.

"He's riding well, his stable is flying and, what's more, he's a horribly nice person.

"From my experience with Jamie, no lead is insurmountable. At this stage, I was 20 clear but I then had a very quiet July which is normally my busiest time of the year.

"The problem comes with the maiden races and handicaps later on in the season which are full of thousands of runners – that will be Paul's hardest job."

Sanders is back to his best after suffering a broken leg following his title win. With trademark honesty, he has no time for those jockeys who, with one eye on Hanagan's lead, attempt to diminish the importance of the jockeys' championship.

"It is the be-all and end-all, and they know it," Sanders insisted.

"Some say it is quality not quantity. Rubbish. Being champion jockey is the ultimate.

"They are only saying it because they can't do it.

"Good luck to Paul – he will be a deserving champion."

Hanagan's punishing schedule since July 1 has seen him undertake an incredible 54 rides, accruing 16 winners, including the Fahey-trained Polar Kite

(10-11) and Rose Blossom (8-1) at York yesterday. His strike-rate is the best in the country.

It has also seen him take in 12 racecourses – Redcar, Doncaster, Beverley, Haydock, Carlisle, Ayr, Ripon, Pontefract, Southwell, Catterick, Doncaster before the relative calm of two days close to home on York's Knavesmire.

While a Royal Ascot win on Marine Commando has, undoubtedly, been Hanagan's season highlight to date, it is his uncomplicated style of riding, which produced an eyecatching four winners on the first day of the Flat season at Doncaster in late March, that appears to have a galvanizing effect on his horses.

On Tuesday, after a hat-trick at Pontefract, Hanagan travelled to Southwell's evening fixture. His mount in the 8.40pm, a one mile six furlong marathon, was a 5-1 chance. It was, effectively, a meaningless late-night fixture.

However, Hanagan thought otherwise. He settled Michael Wigham's City Stable so well that he was being called the winner a mile from home. That is the difference – he is instilling his own confidence into his horses.

And, even though it meant he did not get home to his young family in Malton until around 10.30pm, it was another success in his quest to become the first Northern rider to win the jockeys' title since Kevin Darley 10 years ago.

Hanagan already has the support of Yorkshire punters. But, as Sanders observed, he is now coming to the attention of more trainers who will be prepared to put him up on the horses in the critical weeks ahead.

"He treats every race the same," added Sanders.

"That is why he is doing so well, but don't tell him that I said so. I still want to ride some winners myself."