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Paul Hanagan on the race to be champion jockey

Paul Hanagan
Paul Hanagan is closing in on his dream of claiming the champion jockey title

By Frank Keogh

The pace is telling as the latter stages of the season kick in and one man's bid to become champion sees him clocking up the miles. All 60,000 of them.

Driven by an unexpected opportunity, fuelled with the hunger of an underdog and backed by a growing band of supporters, Paul Hanagan admits the race is taking its toll.

But he remains determined to defy the odds by becoming champion jockey in November.

At the start of the flat racing season in March he was a lightly-regarded 40-1 shot for the title behind names such as Frankie Dettori and Kieren Fallon.

Now he is favourite with bookmakers to achieve his dream, one he covets so dearly that he can barely look at how his main rivals Richard Hughes and Ryan Moore are progressing.

He does not need to look because he keeps being told. "Sixteen ahead now," cries a well-wisher. "One more in the bag," says another.

"You really notice the difference. People are coming up to me and wishing me well," Hanagan tells BBC Sport as he reflects on his new-found spell in the spotlight.

Honest Frank

"Everyone likes to see an underdog do well, and maybe a new name on the championship."

His fellow jockeys tease him by quipping: "Alright, champ?"

So what would being champion sound like for real?

"It's a bit crazy. That's all it was for me - a dream," says Hanagan. "I would find it hard to put into words. It would be incredible.

"I'd have a drink, a decent drink, if it did happen. I wouldn't go mad but it would be absolutely fantastic, to be honest.

"Now I'm a few ahead, but I need to keep it going. I still think it's going to be tough, there's a long way to go.

"I hate setting targets. I set a target of riding 100 winners in a calendar year a few seasons ago and broke my collarbone twice. Anything can happen."

Early starts, long drives, tough rides - sometimes in the afternoon and evening - add up to a punishing schedule, with barely a day off and precious little time with his wife Anna and sons Josh (four years) and Sam (seven months).

"It's very hard but I'm lucky my wife understands the game and what I have to do," says Hanagan who is 5ft 5" tall and weighs 8st 5lbs.

"Josh watches me sometimes and shouts at the telly, but I think he would rather be watching Fireman Sam.

"You get up in the morning and ride out and the kids are in bed, then you get home after racing and they are in bed.

"Sometimes I don't see them for three or four days which is difficult. My wife deserves a medal."

Hanagan is achieving what his father Geoff had set out to do as a teenager. A failed jockey in Newmarket, he introduced Paul to racing.

"My dad used to ride out at Terry Caldwell's yard, not too far from home and I followed him down one weekend - I was into football, and a big Liverpool fan, but a match must have been called off," adds Hanagan junior.

"That was how it all started. Straight away I thought this is something totally different.

"I was stood at the top of the gallops watching my dad on these horses, and he was going so fast. I'll never forget that.

"I thought: 'This is what I want to do'. I was still only about 11, but it was kind of like a bug."

I will have done 60,000 miles by the end of the season

Paul Hanagan

Hanagan helped out at the yard until he rode a horse for the first time aged 14.

"It was very scary," he recalls. "I was getting up on the quiet horses, just trotting about and then would canter some of the stronger ones.

"I was 16 when a horse ran off with me, they did two circuits round the gallops that are hard to forget. It was just out of control, but I stuck with it."

It is quite a thought. A lad barely 5ft tall and weighing not much more than 6st careering around with half a ton of horse underneath him.

All part of a racing education that included a nine-week stint at the British Racing School, and continues to this day.

"The racing school worked out really well for me. It started from the basics and taught you how to look after horses," says Hanagan.

"It did me the world of good. Moving out of home and everything, it was all a big learning curve and part of growing up."

Hanagan wanted to be a jump jockey and admired former champion rider John Francome.

He joined the yard of Malcolm Jefferson, who trained National Hunt horses like Cheltenham Festival winner Dato Star.

"I was trying to build up strength, running every day and going to the gym, but it's impossible to ride horses purely with brute strength and a lot of it is to do with technique," he remembers.

His light weight made him more suitable to flat racing and Jefferson recommended him to trainer Richard Fahey, sparking a partnership of close to 13 years, which has achieved increasing success.

"I'm not a one-season wonder. I've worked myself up gradually and progressed every season," insists the championship leader, who hails from Warrington in Cheshire.

"I've been working very hard to keep myself at the top. Richard's yard has progressed at the same time and he is getting better quality horses."

Only one northern rider, Kevin Darley, has won the title in the last 100 years and Hanagan is getting plenty of support from his friends in the north.

His nearest pursuer, Hughes, is stable jockey for Richard Hannon in Wiltshire while three-time champion Moore (recently sidelined by a wrist injury) is employed by Newmarket trainer Sir Michael Stoute.

"The support I'm getting is unbelievable. The northern trainers particularly are doing everything they can to help me towards the championship," says Hanagan.

The backing helps as he sees out a gruelling campaign.

"I will have done 60,000 miles by the end of the season. Sometimes I will drive, sometimes someone else, sometimes I'll fly, but it's the worst part of the job. It feels like some days are never-ending," he adds.

"The roads get worse and worse every year, and it really can drag you down sometimes.

"Driving up to Ayr takes just over four hours. You get off the motorway and there's another hour on back roads.

"Then you might have seven rides, but it feels like you've done a full day's work before you get there."

And all for a title that brings no extra financial reward to its winner. Just the honour of being champion.

"It would be great to repay the likes of my dad, and people like Malcolm and Richard, in some kind of way. My dad is on cloud nine, I'm living his dream I suppose," says Hanagan.

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see also
No winner for Moore on comeback
02 Sep 10 |  Horse Racing
Hanagan keen to become champion
25 Nov 09 |  Horse Racing
Champion jockey is Hanagan's aim
24 Dec 08 |  Horse Racing
BBC racing coverage
09 Apr 11 |  Horse Racing

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