Serpentine springs Derby surprise at Epsom

It was weird, and in many ways wonderful. Around the turn in this first ever crowd-less fourth of July Derby, came a 25-1 outsider called Serpentine who had only won his first race a week ago, whose jockey Emmet McNamara had not had a winner since October and whom all the other jockeys had imagined would fail again. He didn’t. He and Serpentine ran heroically on to have a five and half-length triumph as deserved as it was unexpected.

Credit to the victors. True they got a 20-length slip on their pursuers coming down the hill, but an hour earlier the reckless pacemakers showed how easy it is to go too fast. Emmet may have only ridden 10 winners in the last five seasons, but he was champion apprentice in 2008, is a fixture at Aidan O’Brien’s Ballydoyle powerhouse, was a photo-finish second for Sovereign’s trainer in the Irish Derby last Saturday and rides for O’Brien again today in the French Derby at Chantilly. The greatest compliment he can be paid is that when he sling-shotted Serpentine down and through Tattenham Corner it was reminiscent of Steve Cauthen and Slip Anchor.

Indeed, that doyen of watch-stoppers Michael Tanner clocked Serpentine’s first half mile in 54.50 and his time to the 2 furlong marker of 2m9.71 as very similar to that of the great American rider’s on Slip Anchor back in 1985.  Serpentine had made all the running last week, so was an expected leader as was Khalifa Set the 50-1 stablemate of Kameko who started 5-2 favourite to double up his 2,000 Guineas win in the Derby. Kameko had a clear run round but, as ever at Epsom, plenty didn’t.

These included second favourite English King on whom Frankie Dettori swerved left at the start from the ‘coffin box’ inside draw and then found himself trapped along the rail for much of the descent. But even when he got running room, the only horses that ever looked like catching Serpentine were Khalifa Set and the 66-1 O’Brien runner Amhran Na Bhfiann who had accompanied Serpentine in the early part of his journey.  Even that they failed to do, Kameko missing third by a nose, with English King a neck behind in fifth and Mogul, Ryan Moore’s choice of the six runner O’Brien squad, another three quarters a length away in sixth. 

The senior jockeys will be kicking themselves but they were victims of the old truth that you can give away weight but not distance. 30 year old McNamara was having his first ride and was splendidly self-deprecating afterwards. “I think I got a little bit of a freebie really,” he said. “I had a huge amount of confidence in the horse having spoken to Aidan during the week, he said he thought the horse would stay a mile and six furlongs well.

“He told me to give him a breather around the six-furlong mark and then to keep building to that winning post because the horse would keep going. Thank god he was right. It’s surreal to have won this race, I can’t believe it.” Asked how he felt he would cope with having to quarantine for 14 days when he returns from France tomorrow, he added: “I don’t mind if I have to do 14 months.”

Aidan O’Brien is somewhat more familiar with big race success and this was a record breaking 8th Derby win for his Ballydoyle stable and the fifth sired by Galileo, his first Derby victor back in 2001 “We are so delighted to have such unbelievable horses and to work for such special people” was his familiar return tribute via Zoom about a day which an hour earlier had seen his 1,000 Guineas winner Love leave her rivals floundering in the Oaks, the first time it had been run on the same day as the Derby. From the way she won you would not think that too many of her predecessors have ever done it better, albeit her superiority was probably exaggerated by the brutal tempo set by her stablemate Passion duelling in the lead with Tempo Vuela, doing the same duty for market rival Frankly Darling. 

The pair got so far clear that they were already exiting Tattenham Corner when the rest of the field were only half way down the hill. But as they faltered, Ryan Moore gathered Love into a rhythm which drove her away from the expected challenge of Frankie Dettori and  Frankly Darling. Further away she drew and finally had nine lengths in hand of the other Irish challenger, Ennstyman, who just bested Frankly Darling for second in a final time of 2m 34.06 compared to Serpentine’s 2m 34.43.

It was a victory which left Aidan O’Brien saying “anything is possible” and mentioning not just the Irish Oaks and the Arc de Triomphe, but even a shot at the St Leger to complete the fillies Triple Crown last won by Oh So Sharp in 1985. Whatever the future, Love has already had strong effect on Ryan Moore. You never expect to win the Oaks like that. She was exceptional. Hopefully she’ll be one to look forward to and she’ll be a threat for anything.”

So the final lesson from this strangest of Derby Days may be that while Serpentine may have ruled, looking to the rest of the season it may be Love that will conquer all. 

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