The Times, 6th June 2021
At Epsom the course and the game were the winners. To get a young thoroughbred primed to run a mile and a half around the horseshoe-shaped helter-skelter of the Derby track is a test that can confound the clearest of predictions. Ask Aidan O’Brien.
In Bolshoi Ballet and Santa Barbara the Tipperary trainer had hot favourites for both the Derby and the Oaks, both of which he had already won eight times. What’s more, O’Brien, the most successful trainer of the modern era, with staff and statistical evidence to give the most precise of perspectives, had been adamant that both horses were showing figures that were truly exceptional.
To that end he ran Santa Barbara at Epsom with only two races under her belt, and was so confident in Bolshoi Ballet’s brilliance that he was the sole representative of the Coolmore team, which is usually mob handed in case, as happened last year with 25-1 Serpentine, one of his lesser lights comes good.
Bookmakers took the cue. Bolshoi Ballet started at 11-8, Santa Barbara at 5-2. Money may talk but it’s not what makes horses run. Bolshoi Ballet finished 17 lengths behind Adayar in seventh and Santa Barbara and stable jockey Ryan Moore finished 21 long lengths back from her stablemate Snowfall ridden by the inimitable Frankie Dettori. So what went wrong?
It had nothing to do with the jockey. In the Derby, Moore always had Bolshoi Ballet close to the leaders but just faded in the straight. In the Oaks he kept the inexperienced Santa Barbara in last place to avoid the frantic early uphill rush but although sweeping through to challenge at the quarter-mile pole, faded feebly thereafter. The 50-year-old Dettori was as silky in style and exuberant in celebration as always but beyond being sensibly restrained over the first two furlongs, his was only a steering job. “His granny could have won on it,” said Johnny Murtagh, albeit exaggerating a touch as Frankie’s “nonna” now looks down on us from above.
To his credit O’Brien did not come on heavy with the excuses. “He just ran flat,” he said about Bolshoi Ballet, and “she cantered into the race but in that [soft] ground she emptied so she will go back to a mile and a quarter” about the filly. What a warning for anyone who starts believing in racing certainties, but what a re-affirmation of the challenge that the Derby course sets.
Everyone should walk it. I did on Saturday morning. It was the 50th time I have made the annual pilgrimage and was struck once again by how unique a task it is for horse and rider, particularly from the start. The opening climb of 43 metres in the first two furlongs, as high as Nelson’s Column, is so sharp that horses will never have faced such early exertion or such rollercoaster contours around which they next have to gallop. Everyone has an image of the descent through Tattenham Corner but even more crucial is the right to left downhill camber as you battle up the straight.
To handle all this demands speed, balance, stamina, courage, and often in the jockey’s case, quite a bit of daring. Not too much this time from Frankie as, at least in Friday’s conditions, Snowfall may well be the best mile and a half horse in Europe, but for Adam Kirby on the big, long-striding, left-leaning Adayar daring was needed in spades.
Luckily Adam is a phenomenon, not just for how he keeps his hefty frame to 9 st and for bumping up and down in the saddle, but for being such an all-round horseman that you could as easily ask him to get a horse to jump a gate as ride a gallop. Swinging off Tattenham Corner in third place along the rail he had plenty of power beneath him but Adayar’s long rolling stride and slightly right-tilting neck told that balance was tricky and a drive to the outside would be difficult. The leader, Gear Up, was barely a horse’s width off the rail. But it was a gap and, after half his 32-year-old life in race riding, Kirby drove Adayar through it and on to glory.
Adayar may well have won anyway and could earn fame beyond that of being Frankel’s first Derby winner, but that moment when Kirby used mind and muscle to drive through along the rail deserves its own place in the memory. For it reminds us of the glory of the game and that should always be bigger than any of us. Otherwise it’s over and, despite a fair bit of inevitable modern day decline, racing is far from over yet.
Rob Wright, Racing Editor
The Epsom classics are the pinnacle for equine athletes, so how can you explain such seemingly unexpected results in the Derby and Oaks? Stamina is the answer.
The classic generation are still only three years old, the equivalent of teenagers, and those competing at Epsom are still maturing. More importantly, the majority are racing over a mile-and-a-half for the first time.
While that was not really the case with 16-1 Derby winner Adayar, who had finished second to Third Realm over just 87 yards shorter in the Lingfield Derby Trial, his stamina had still not been brought into play as that was run at a slow early gallop.
The Derby was a different test. A strong early pace turned it into a proper examination at the trip, which brought out a much-improved performance from Adayar. He would certainly stay another two furlongs in the St Leger should connections choose that route.
Runner-up Mojo Star was trying the trip for the first time and this son of Sea The Stars relished every inch of it, while third-placed Hurricane Lane lost his unbeaten record but still showed improvement for the step up in distance.
The Oaks saw a massively impressive victory for Snowfall. Is she really as good as a record 16-length margin of victory suggests? Probably not. The Oaks field featured several who were not sure to stay the trip and many others who were bred to want faster ground and were undone by the heavy rain that fell on Friday.
Having said that, Snowfall is clearly a brilliant filly and, in receipt of a weight allowance if taking on the colts, she would be a warm favourite to beat Adayar should their paths cross. She will be tough to beat wherever she runs for the rest of the campaign and the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe at Longchamp in October will surely be on the agenda.