x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Paul Hanagan's ride to the top finally rewarded at the starting gate

The jockey has made a fast start in the UAE but it was a long time getting here, writes Geoffrey Riddle.

Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, December 16, 2012: Paul Hanagan atop Aqmaar after riding to victory during the Nez D'or Handicap at the Abu Dhabi Equestrian Club in Abu Dhabi on December 16, 2012. Christopher Pike / The National
Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, December 16, 2012: Paul Hanagan atop Aqmaar after riding to victory during the Nez D'or Handicap at the Abu Dhabi Equestrian Club in Abu Dhabi on December 16, 2012. Christopher Pike / The National

Paul Hanagan's first memory of seeing Sheikh Hamdan bin Rashid's racing silks was when Nashwan scooted clear in the English Derby at Epsom.

Hanagan, who was only eight in that summer of 1989, had bunked off school and was watching the race with his father, Geoffrey. As Willie Carson, Sheikh Hamdan's retained rider at the time, urged his mount onwards the unbeaten colt extended to pull five lengths clear for the first of the owner's two successes in the English Classic. Carson also partnered Erhaab in 1994.

Wind the clock forward and it is Hanagan who now sports those famous colours, following on from Richard Hills as Sheikh Hamdan's ambassador throughout the racing world.

The 32 year old was in action last weekend in the UAE ahead of his first full season in the Emirates since being appointed as Sheikh Hamdan's first rider in February.

The dual British champion jockey did not disappoint, either, thrusting the Sheikh's Haatheq to a stunning nine-length procession at Jebel Ali Racecourse on Friday. It was only his second ride since touching down in Dubai last Tuesday.

The win was embroidered in blue and white with another victory for his employer in Sharjah the following day. Hanagan then showcased his talents in Abu Dhabi on Sunday by steering Aqmaar, a purebred Arabian trained by Gillian Duffield, to a cosy win in the card's feature contest.

If it was an announcement that Hanagan is taking this UAE season very seriously it was effective.

But as a show of strength from the Shadwell team, it was almost overwhelming.

Sheikh Hamdan has been the champion owner in the UAE every season since the 2004/05 campaign, and with Hanagan winning for his patron at three different racecourses it looks as though it is going to be another long season for their rivals.

"I like the way it is a big team effort," Hanagan said. "To get the chance to wear those colours all the time now is pretty surreal. It is a big thrill and honour to be given the chance to put the colours on, and chances don't come along like this often."

Hanagan clearly realises that he has been blessed with one of the top jobs in world racing but is self-aware enough to understand that he fully deserves the position.

Hanagan earned his spurs by driving upwards of 60,000 miles a year in a frenzied pursuit of rides around Britain, a process that yielded him the jockeys' title in 2010 and 2011.

Whereas Tadhg O'Shea rode 278 horses to seal his second UAE jockeys' title last season, Hanagan partnered 1,209 in Britain alone in 2011 to secure his.

The man has an almost impossible work rate and one that seems to mimic his patron, who he rarely sees.

"He's a very busy man, but I have met him a few times on the occasions he goes racing in Britain," Hanagan said. "I hope to see more of him in Dubai as we talk tactics a lot. He is a very knowledgeable man about his racing and it is nice to listen to him and get advice from him."

When he was handed the role 10 months ago Hanagan put together a folder with details of the 250 horses owned in England by Sheikh Hamdan in a bid to remember not only how to pronounce and spell all the names of his mounts but to better remind himself of their individual capabilities and idiosyncrasies.

It is a nightly task keeping up his database of information, and despite the multitude of computer spreadsheets and analytical programmes available on the mass market, Hanagan prefers to stick to the more mechanical method of writing it all down.

"I write down notes on every horse such as form, breeding, how it ran, and how I should ride it better next time," he said. "Those folders back home [in Newmarket] I can barely pick them up any more they are so full of information.

"I am a bit old fashioned. I prefer pen and paper. I take it in better when I write it all down, but my wife gives me a rollicking about how I should do it on the iPad."

Hanagan's method of studious preparation only highlights that his approach to life is fast becoming out of synch with an increasingly fast-paced and cynical world.

Loyalty is a concept that is quickly disappearing from the sporting firmament with sports agents increasingly playing a huge part in contract negotiation. No matter who you talk to about Hanagan, however, they all consider him to be the most loyal person on the circuit and with Hills riding as first jockey for 15 years it is clearly an attribute that Sheikh Hamdan values highly.

Hanagan rode for Richard Fahey in the north of England for 17 years before he was asked to succeed Hills.

Although on the one hand he was excited at being handed an opportunity of a lifetime, he wrestled internally about how best to break the news to Fahey. Hanagan has spoken in the past about how he became overly upset at having to leave Fahey, and it seems that the trainer felt a similarly strong tie to his rider.

"It hit me hard," Fahey said. "He had been offered it a couple of times. I told him he had to go and I told him that he had to take it. It's a big chance for him, and we have had to adapt.

"It was mixed emotions and I didn't enjoy it at all. I always thought that we'd be together for the rest of our lives and there was never any thought he would move on.

"I am delighted for him and I hope it works well with him."

Hanagan's record in top-flight races in Britain is poor, having partnered only 11 Group winners from 156 rides in the past five seasons.

That record owes mostly to the fact that Fahey is not blessed with a plethora of equine blue bloods, but the pair made the breakthrough this year when Hanagan registered his first Group 1 victory in Britain aboard Mayson through the mud at Newmarket to win the July Cup.

Although Hanagan broke his duck at the highest level when successful on Wootton Bassett in the Prix Jean-Luc Lagardere at Longchamp's Arc meeting for Fahey, the gaping hole in his CV in his own country was beginning to gnaw at him.

The thirst for Group 1 winners was one of the primary driving forces as to why he made the switch, although Sheikh Hamdan's operation is undergoing something of a lean patch at the moment having not scored a notable success worldwide since Bethrah won the Irish 1000 Guineas in May 2010.

"It was a great day with Mayson and, to be fair, I was getting very impatient about not having won a Group 1 in Britain," Hanagan said.

"It was just so nice to give a bit back to Richard after all he has done for me.

"I think the past few years have been about Shadwell hitting the crossbar a little bit. It is bound to happen. Everyone goes through a lull in this game.

"I know it is going to get better and we have a lot of horses coming through for this season in the UAE and next season in Europe."

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