RACING POST FEATURES – 17-10-2010
At Kempton on Wednesday evening Paul Hanagan was keen to dispel the idea that he was THAT nice. “People should remember,” he said, “that I was the first person in the history of Grappenhall Rovers to be red carded twice for violent conduct. Mind you,” he added with something a bit too close to an angelic smile to confirm his thesis, “it was for the Under 12s.”
On the racetrack, of course, there has been plenty of sweat and tears since that distant day in September 1998 when an otherwise undistinguished three year old of Malcolm Jefferson’s called Stone Beck became little Paul’s first ride in public by carrying him to finish fourth in a twenty runner handicap at Haydock. Indeed there have been falls, concussions, crises of confidence and at one stage enough suspensions to suggest that the young Hanagan was something of a serial recidivist.
But spend any time with the 30 year old who now stands just two weeks away from a first jockeys’ championship and the overwhelming impression is just how unbelievably “nice” he is. “An absolute gentleman and a very good jockey,” had been Frankie Dettori’s verdict in the weighing room half an hour earlier, “doesn’t make many mistakes, that’s the key thing.” Such tributes are so unanimous that you have to wonder where the quiet, so politely spoken pixie face in front of you gets the devil to have driven home almost 190 winners this season.
“There might be rougher places than Latchford, where I was brought up near Warrington,” he says, “but you still had to be street wise. I was very small but if people pushed me around I was prepared to stand up for myself. That’s what happened at football, sent off twice for fighting, and when I started riding I was never a natural but I liked the challenge and I worked very, very hard at it.”
Every champion has a first horse he remembers as a friend and schoolmaster. Tony McCoy will tell you of a one-time Sheikh Mohammed gelding called Wood Louse at Billy Rock’s yard in Cullybackey in County Antrim, in Paul Hanagan’s case it was an extremely untalented hurdler called Culrain who would whizz him safely up Terry Caldwell’s gallops next to the M6 at Appleton. “I owe him a hell of a lot for looking after me,” said Paul on Wednesday, “he wasn’t any good but eventually he was in the worst race ever at Warwick and I sneaked in to the betting shop only to get thrown out before he went and won. I must have looked about ten years old.”
The young Hanagan had got to Caldwell’s as his father Geoff rekindled the riding bug which had taken him to Newmarket for two brief and unsuccessful spells in the early 60’s. But while 56 year old Geoff has become the proudest of racing Dad’s he was clearly a long way from the father from hell forcing a son to live out the parent’s dream. “To be honest I was always quite wary of him getting involved,” said Geoff earlier in the week, “because my experience had been an unhappy one. Eventually, when he was about 15, my wife Sheila and I let him go away to Malcolm Jefferson’s for a week in the school holidays thinking he would ring up and want to come home after a day. But he loved it. So after GCSE’s he went to the Racing School in Newmarket, then back to Jefferson’s for a while before Malcolm said he really should go to a flat yard and recommended Richard Fahey.”
Geoff Hanagan, the diminutive son of a Merchant Seaman, had only got into racing for his size and by his own admission never mastered the art of applying the brakes in his week with Sam Armstrong and nearer six months with John Waugh at Fitzroy House now run by Michael Bell. But while he sounds the unlikeliest of firebrands he did have spunk enough to lead a walk out and get fired for his pains. “I am not really very proud of it,” he explains, “but in those days the apprentices had to work 7 days a week and so we decided not to come in one Sunday and write a letter explaining why we didn’t think it was right. The trouble is I was the muggins who signed the letter. The other boys got taken back, I got the boot.”
Hanagan junior has not exhibited any such revolutionary tendencies in the 13 full seasons he has now worked for Richard Fahey at Malton but does admit to plenty of complaint and of being complained about starting with a clearly never to be forgotten day when getting beat two short heads on a horse of Fahey’s called Night Flight in a race at York a month after that debut at Haydock. “I had a rush of blood,” he admits, “and went to the front at halfway. The boss had some strong words to say. I certainly did not know where the winning post was that day.”
Paul smiles at that last remark because “this boy knows just where the winning post is” has become the most consistent of all the tributes Richard Fahey has dished out since standing in the winner’s enclosure after Vintage Premium had won the John Smiths’ at York and telling Derek Thompson “if this boy is not champion jockey one day I will give up the game.” Vintage Premium’s golden year, which included front running victories at Windsor and at Epsom on Derby Day, was in 2002 and saw Hanagan ride 84 winners and become champion apprentice. But to fully appreciate the package he is today, we need to take in the eight years since and, even more important, the four seasons before.
“To start with he was just too small and weak,” remembers Richard Hale, the agent who steered Fahey apprentice Robert Winston to the young riders’ title in 1999 (?), “you could see he had the right idea but it was going to take time. Then in 2001 he had that bad fall at York just when he was getting going. I think that knocked him back a bit.”
Paul Hanagan thinks so too. “A horse called Ballet Master took off with me on the way to the start,” he says, “I got him round the first bend but then he went straight through the rails and knocked me unconscious. I was off for about five weeks and it affected me mentally. Everything seemed to go wrong, horses would rear over with me in the stalls, they must have sensed my lack of confidence. Richard never said anything but it must have shown. I was lucky to get through it.”
If parental and trainer support helped him overcome that crisis and the string of suspensions that limited the 2003 winner total to just 64, it was support of a female kind which got him back on track after two collar bone accidents partly de-railed the season in 2005. In November he married Anna Sutton whom he had first met when she came to Malton for work experience but then he had to woo her by long distance trips to Lancashire down the M62. “I couldn’t have got here without her,” Paul said very sweetly on Wednesday, “having a secure family means everything to me. That’s why I take time off to be with them (sons Josh and Sam are four year old and ten months respectively) in the winter. With the amount of racing I think it’s essential to recharge your batteries. You really feel it at this stage of the season.”
The memory stirred of the long, lean sight of Richard Hughes at the weighing room rail a few minutes earlier having rushed from 6 rides at Lingfield to another full book at Kempton. The effort would claw back three winners to get within seven of the Hanagan tally, but the strain showed in the raddled lines of his exhausted face. “It must be so hard on him,” said the 9 inches shorter Paul with utterly unfeigned sympathy, “doing all that and hardly being able to eat at all. Obviously we both want to be champion but there is absolutely no enmity about it. I was riding a horse at Wolverhampton two weeks ago that he had been on the time before and he took the trouble to tell me all about it. I think he is a wonderful, wonderful rider. I love the way he seems part of a horse. Honestly I wish him every success.”
Only a piece of lettuce was likely to witness Hughes’ meal that evening but Hanagan would be able to have a full supper before preparing for the next day’s action at Nottingham, and on Monday he had done as low as 8 stone Ilb without any difficulty as part of an eight ride stint at Windsor. It gives him a huge advantage over his rival but what happened on a horse called Ingleby Spirit three rides later at Windsor showed why it would now be as silly to ascribe Paul’s stream of success merely to his light weight as it was to Willie Carson in his prime.
Willie’s particular gift was to actually relax a horse by nudging them along from a long way out and then have the strength, determination and skill to build them up to a closing crescendo on the line. There was quite a bit of Carson as Hanagan began to push away at Ingleby Spirit along the stands rail fully three furlongs out, but what happened afterwards is entitled to be judged all on its own.
For while Paul is not quite as clamped down in the finishing drive as Willie was and tends to use his whip in the forward rather than Carson’s back-hand position, he lacks nothing in determination, intuition and that Fahey remarked-on awareness of the finishing line. Two furlongs out at Windsor, the Hanagan stick is up and a couple of cracks insist on urgency but the way through is difficult, resolution important. Halfway through the gap the horse hung to his left and in an instant both the jockey’s hands were on the reins to rebalance him. The line was coming up fast, a rival either side even faster. The jockey reached down and forward for those last three strides with his whip waving like a conductor’s baton. The judge called a photograph but Hanagan had it by a nose.
“I needed to nurse him a bit,” Paul explained before adding with no aim at false modesty, “I have developed my own way of doing it. I like to build a rhythm and I do think it is important to try and keep them balanced. Riding winners gives you confidence and you give that to the horse. In the past there were times when I was trying too hard and that was what would get me suspensions. The fact that I have hardly been in “the room” this year shows that it is getting better although I got a “day” at Goodwood last week for hitting in the wrong place and when they showed me the film it was quite embarrassing.”
Few people in that bar may have given a second glance to the little figure sipping his coffee but there was a professional authority in the tones that suggest that this likely first championship should not be his last. The records may show that only Kevin Darley in 2000 and the splendidly names Elijah “The Whippet” Wheatley in 1905 may have won the title in the last 105 years but as the quality of Richard Fahey’s horses has risen so his jockey has improved to match them.
It was 2008 when Utmost Respect won Hanagan his first race in France, but last year’s first Royal Ascot success with Cosmic Sun was matched by this year’s Windsor Castle with Marine Commando and whatever the result of yesterday’s Dewhurst, Hanagan is sure it would be a mistake to overlook the claims of the still unbeaten Wootton Bassett who so gloriously won trainer and jockey their first overseas Group One on Arc de Triomphe day at Ascot.
No horse better personifies the teamwork which underpins the 150 winner season success of the Fahey stable. “In the spring we already knew we had a good bunch of two year olds,” remembers Paul with his eyes widening at the pleasure of the memory, “but Wooton Bassett didn’t join us at the beginning. The first time he came up with the bunch Natalya Gemetalyova rode him and he ran all over us. The second time I was on him and he left the lead horse behind if it was standing still. But we need to mention Tony Hamilton who won on him first time and who broke his pelvis on a horse at Ayr that I should have ridden but missed because of a flu bug.”
At the stage of those first gallops Wootton Bassett was just “the Ifraaj colt”, even now he is behind the big guns in the betting but Hanagan is adamant that he has a good chance of being classic competitive over a mile as a three year old. “He made the running at Longchamp because there wasn’t any pace,” says Paul, “but although he was keen for a furlong he was quite settled in front afterwards and I was always going to win up the straight. I am really looking forward to next season.”
The next two weeks will show whether he does it as champion. “I rode a four timer on the first day and have been in front all the way,” he says, “so it will be very hard if it doesn’t happen. But the season has been absolutely tremendous for me. It has built my confidence up so much. I have huge respect for the other jockeys for all the big races they have won but I don’t feel lesser than them now. I am still pinching myself to make sure it is not a dream.”
An evening spent a jockey ride three losers at the clean and pleasant but entirely atmosphere-less and utterly crowd-free delights of Kempton Park is not necessarily one that you would imagine would give you much extra hope for British Racing. But it did with Paul Hanagan on Wednesday.