4 June 2006
Sir Percy came back from the treatment room to win a four-way photo finish. Visindar, the French-trained favourite, stuck on only to find Epsom too much for his style and inexperience. Horatio Nelson, the Irish standard bearer, shattered his fetlock and the vets found euthanasia the only option. The Derby, 227 years on, supped full of dramas – yet again.
It is the best and worst of races. Two furlongs to run yesterday, six different horses including the favourite could win and in 25 extraordinary seconds the race would be shaken by a full half-dozen changes before it was Sir Percy on the rail who had it by a thumbnail on the line.
No one would dare to write the script, just as no one today would think of setting a championship course around the swirling, crowd-packed, helter-skelter of these Downs. But they do. And when 18 colts met for this renewal, the test was as absolute as ever. And the winner as brave as any who had gone before.
In the end Sir Percy was an official short-head in front of the nose-banded Dragon Dancer, with that horse’s front-running partner, Dylan Thomas, a head behind in third, the once-raced Hala Bek just another short-head back and Visindar two lengths away in fifth. The first four horses were within a neck at the finish, each of them looking as if they could score as the post flashed towards them. And, sadly, the drama already had more to it than that.
For as we looked down the straight, with the photo result as yet uncalled, the screens were already up at the two-furlong pole. Horatio Nelson, the leader of the four-strong Ballydoyle contingent, was now fighting something more than a Derby finish. His broken leg meant that the battle was for life itself.
Worse still, his participation had taken place after the most dreadful of dilemmas for jockey Kieren Fallon and trainer Aidan O’Brien. On the way to the start, the jockey had felt the horse to be not quite perfect. Once there, the trainer watched as the colt circled and circled at the trot and canter. With all his and his jockey’s knowledge, they decided to risk it. Now they wish they had done the unthinkable and withdrawn the heavily backed second favourite for what seemed merely a suspicion at the start.
As they turned into the straight, Horatio Nelson had loomed up as a major contender. Dylan Thomas and Dragon Dancer had set the pace and, unique in recent Derbies, were to be still right there at the finish. Visindar, who had looked a bit lean and spotty beforehand, had moved up beside Horatio Nelson. Hala Bek was in a good position and the only one of the final principals you could not consider was Sir Percy and Martin Dwyer.
For at that stage they were stuck back along the rail after being trapped by Frankie Dettori on Visindar’s stable companion, Linda’s Lad. “It was a rough race,” Dwyer said afterwards. “For a while I thought Frankie was trying to ride my horse as well as his. In the end I had to go where I could get a run up the fence. He was terrific.”
Truth be told, Sir Percy looked the least likely victor at that final quarter mile stage. In less time than it takes to write this, the eye had to take in the sudden demise of Horatio Nelson and the awareness of Visindar’s rolling immaturity. For a few seconds it seemed as if Dylan Thomas would hold on. Then Hala Bek closed as a certain winner before suddenly diving to the right and all but unshipping Philip Robinson. This Derby, with 50 yards to run, was still unresolved. Dylan Thomas stretched for the line, but now Sir Percy sprinted past up his inside. Dylan hit back and right on the wire Dragon Dancer’s white noseband lunged forward.
For a few seconds the result hung in limbo. Then Sir Percy’s number was called. Sir Percy, the little horse bought for £16,000, whose owners refused millions for the chance of the Classic thrill; whose Marcus Tregoning training team have nursed him back from injury after the 2,000 Guineas, whose jockey only the night before lay groaning in the paddock at Bath after a two-year-old threw him against a post.
The Derby is only a horse race but this year it became almost a morality tale. It said that however much money you spend, however perfect the pedigree, however well your horse may perform on the gallops, in the end the test that matters is this utterly uncompromising two and a half minutes round historic Epsom Downs.
It is racing’s luck that new generations of owners continue to accept the challenge. And race fans’ thrill that the accepting of it can still fill the fleeting minutes with drama enough to make history of its own. For at the heart of it there is the moment when the product of three centuries of breeding combines with a human athlete with a programmed lifetime of practice to try and bore a hole in the wind.
Finally, let me give you two images to treasure. At Tregoning’s stables above Lambourn last Tuesday, little Sir Percy dancing with well-being after his gallop. At Epsom yesterday, as the principals high-fived together. It had just been a horse race. But also much more than that, something for them and us to now set for ever in the memory.