For Paul Hanagan just to be riding at this year’s Ayr Western Meeting is an achievement in itself, but he is also on the verge of a landmark winner at the Scottish track.
The two-time champion jockey was out of action for six months earlier this year after fracturing his T6 vertebra in a fall at Newcastle in February, and some even doubted if the 40-year-old would return.
But return he has, and after a slow start he is now back among the winners, with one more victory at Ayr required for a century at the venue – while he is also approaching 2,000 career winners.
In typically self-effacing style, though, he deflects plenty of the praise on to trainer Richard Fahey, with whom he has had a long and successful partnership.
“It’s always a week we look forward to, we’ve had a lot of success there. Richard fires a lot of bullets at it, but you’ve still got to win the races and we’ve managed to have a bit of luck,” said Hanagan.
“It seems like yesterday, winning the Ayr Gold Cup on Fonthill Road – it’s startling to think it was back in 2006. Winning it is one of my career highlights, there’s no doubt about it, up the north it’s like winning the Derby.
“It’s a really classy race now, you’ve almost got to be a Group horse to win it and if anything, it’s getting stronger every year.
“It’s nearly at the end of a long season for a lot of horses when you think in a normal year it begins in March, so it’s a good training feat to get your horse to Ayr still in top form – that’s why I hold Richard in such regard, his seem fresh when they get there.
“I think the fact I’ve done so well at Ayr comes down to the fact I’m riding for Richard and I just go out full of confidence, which is a massive thing. I know the track well as I’ve been riding there so long.
“I love going up there, the crowd are so knowledgeable and they don’t talk from their pocket – it’s a different feel up there. That’s why it’s going to be so strange this year. Because of my injury, I’m still not really used to the empty stands – it’s very strange.
“Jockeys, like footballers, feed off an atmosphere and energy. I noticed it most at Chester where they are normally on top of you. We need to get the crowds back soon.”
Hanagan’s injury was serious enough to give him time to reflect on what he has achieved in his career to date and there was plenty to look back on, not least being champion in 2010 and 2011 and his spell as retained rider for owner Hamdan Al Maktoum.
He said: “In the time I was off, I had plenty of time to reflect. I’ve got two boys who are 10 and 14 now and it was nice to reminisce a little with them because as they get older, they understand and take a bit more of an interest, so it was nice to tell them I wasn’t so bad!
“I thought about a lot while I was off. It was nearly six months and it was touch and go whether I would make it back at all, so I did have a look back at what I’d achieved.
“I had people telling me if I didn’t make it back, I should be proud of what I’d achieved and that was nice to hear.
“I suppose I’ve had the best of both worlds in quantity and quality. Being champion a second time was tough, I gave it everything, racing around the country. I loved the buzz, but it was really 24/7.
“You’ve got to take into account how much racing there is these days and the constant travelling and the amount of traffic. You’d get to the races with minutes to spare, give a horse a bad ride and be kicking yourself.
“It’s mentally challenging, so the Hamdan job came at the perfect time really. Riding the likes Taghrooda, Mukhadram and Muhaarar was brilliant.
“Wootton Bassett, who was my first Group One winner, was a great horse for Richard, unbeaten at two and to see that Coolmore have bought him as a stallion now, he could go right to the top given the mares he’ll be getting.
“Unfortunately for me, Muhaarar was retired at the end of his three-year-old season as Shadwell had no real stallions to speak of, so he went to stud at the same time as Mukhadram, which meant we had nothing for the big races the following season!
“I enjoyed going out to Dubai as well. I took my family out, the kids went to school out there and I think I went out for about five years (during the Carnival). It was amazing.
“I won some of the biggest races at the Carnival and had a four-timer one night – I loved it.”
When the sun does eventually set on Hanagan’s career, it will be for his relationship with Fahey that he will be mostly remembered.
“I’d like to think my partnership with Richard has been one of the great ones,” said Hanagan.
“I’m not one for patting myself on the back, but I’m not from a racing background. My dad had a brief flirtation, but I’ve had to do it the hard way.
“I wouldn’t be in this position without Richard, but I also owe a lot to Malcolm Jefferson, God rest his soul, who gave me my first job when unbelievably I wanted to be a jump jockey. Thankfully my weight stayed low and he passed me on to Richard.”