Declan Rix

After Saturday's much talked about Derby at Epsom, Declan Rix salutes the performances of Serpentine and Emmet McNamara.

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Well, what a weekend that was in Britain and France; Classic after Classic over a couple of days of elite racing action. The Derby and Oaks went to post at Epsom, as did the French equivalents at Chantilly, along with the return of superstar Enable in what was a cracking renewal – on paper anyway – of the Coral-Eclipse.  

For this week’s piece, a look at the Derby will be tackled, after all, it’s fair to say this was the race that got everyone talking. Fellow attheraces.com stablemates Kevin Blake and Simon Rowlands have covered the Derby and Oaks well in their respective pieces, putting flesh on the bones through the medium of the clock, educating us on what actually happened, as to what some of us perceived, through a visual medium.

Below, however, I will have a look at the Derby, hopefully meaning this site has got the great race properly covered.

Serpentine Masters Derby Test Under Bold McNamara

I found it hard not be taken by the visual impression 25/1 shot Serpentine left in his 5½ lengths Derby defeat of 50/1 runner-up Khalifa Sat with third-placed Amhran Na Bhfiann (66/1) a half-length further back. Kameko, this season’s 2000 Guineas winner was sent off a well-backed 5/2 favourite, was another nose behind in fourth.

Watching the race unfold live, I suspect like many, there was a certain element of disbelief. Having watched the early and middle stages, I was sure the Emmet McNamara-ridden winner would fold and come back to the field in the straight, but how wrong I was, as the longer the race went on it became apparent Serpentine wasn’t for catching.

McNamara and Serpentine both put up outstanding performances, and caught the majority of this Derby field sleeping. Legendary American race-caller Tom Durkin, after 1994 Breeders’ Cup Distaff victory of One Dreamer, famously said; “You have just witnessed a felony, for jockey Gary Stevens has just stolen a £1 million horse race, and we got it on video tape!”.   

I can’t help but feel similar here with McNamara, whose bold, instinctive ride secured him the biggest race of his life, giving Aidan O’Brien a record-breaking eighth Derby. The winning rider had a quality and willing partner to pull the feat off however, and having watched the replay numerous times, Serpentine’s performance, visually, actually got better and better.

Having been a touch sluggish away, Serpentine was rousted along early to get a good position. Having made the initial steep climb, the chestnut son of Galileo appeared bright and happy, pricking his ears throughout. The Coolmore-owned colt seemed to be racing within himself despite the good pace he set; a sign of a nice horse.

Starting the downward section of the race, McNamara was clearly intent on making the race a test, urging his partner to at least maintain the already strong gallop. The downhill section of the race was a thing of beauty concerning the winner, despite starting this part of the course on the ‘wrong’ leg, his off-fore. That didn’t seem to bother him mind, but half-way through Tattenham Corner came a beautiful switch of legs, allowing him to flow down the steep drop like a bunny around at a greyhound track.

With hindsight, given the huge lead Serpentine had built up, the race was all over once he hit the path at the start of the straight, having negotiated the tricky downhill section of the course like an elite athlete. They say Epsom is the ultimate test of the thoroughbred, mentally and physically, and what we saw last Saturday was a horse secure a Grade A+ performance.  

That should not come as a surprise given the winner’s pedigree; by Galileo, who Mick Kinane said was the best horse he’d ever ridden to handle the unique challenges of Epsom, and out of Remember When, who was second to Snow Fairy in the 2010 Oaks, Serpentine was certainly bred for the Derby test.

Whether he will go to confirm this form with the horses behind remains to be seen, but you can be sure Serpentine isn’t as far ahead as the distances he won by suggest.

Serpentine wins the 2020 Derby at Epsom
A ride worthy of a Derby winner: Emmet McNamara crosses the line in front

Of the rest, I’m not sure there is too much to say, in what I find a tough race to be concrete on. Khalifa Sat raced in second throughout under Tom Marquand, who gave his horse a sound ride. The pair did close on the winner in the straight, but never looked like winning. A lovely, big son of Free Eagle he looks like a horse who will continue to improve for the Andrew Balding team.

Amhran Na Bhfiann finished third, having sat in that position throughout. He needed quite strong early riding by William Buick to get his prominent position and looks a real stayer in the making. He was fourth in that incredible maiden at Leopardstown before coming here. A full-brother to 2012 Oaks winner Was, he will need to improve again to be a St Leger contender, but he’s got the right man guiding his career and a classy pedigree to do so.

This season’s 2000 Guineas winner Kameko was fourth, and did well to finish there given he looked a non-stayer. He raced like a miler early and Oisin Murphy did well not to leave the horse get a run on him. Andrew Balding’s inmate will be better suited with a drop to a mile, but I see no reason why he can’t be as good over 10f on decent ground.

The much talked about English King was fifth under Frankie Dettori, having ducked left out of the stalls and losing ground from his poor draw. He either didn’t travel well early or was short of room at the top of the hill before descending well. It was disappointing he couldn’t finish closer, but having got quite warm, Dettori was easy enough on his mount up the straight.

Aidan O’Brien’s trio of Mogul, Russian Emperor and Vatican City were sixth, seventh and eighth respectably. The former didn’t get any cover early or a good lead from his poor draw in two. He did travel well however, before seemingly not getting home great. O’Brien says he is “built like a miler”, so a drop to 10f may well prove to be his optimum.

Russian Emperor jumped awkwardly and looked to be badly hampered by his stablemate Mogul after the initial steep climb. Of those that finished ahead of him, he looked to be in the worst position tactically and I’m not convinced he stayed all that well, although, in his post-race comments Aidan O’Brien suggested his latest couple of quick runs may have caught up with him.

Under Padraig Beggy, Vatican City appeared to travel well, but I'm not sure he was in love with the track. Second in the Irish 2000 Guineas, a drop back in trip may help him, too.

Derby Horses Can Be Given Another Chance

I’m not sure about the rest of you, but in terms of form, I am struggling to get a handle on this year’s race given the nature it all panned out in, despite Simon Rowland's view of the time being a good one. While it was unsatisfactory in how the Derby unfolded, I don’t think it was an unsatisfactory race or spectacle, per se, in terms of sport.

Considering betting, it was disappointing for most, but you pay your money and you take your chance, not just in a Derby, but in every race you have a bet in. I backed Russian Emperor in the end, but I didn’t moan after the race; as the saying goes, “that’s racing”. If all the moaners backed the winner, I doubt there would have been any uproar, they would have all been hailing Emmet McNamara a genius.

Sure, the race likely didn’t pan out how many of us envisaged beforehand, but that is sport at its finest – anything is possible, and especially when you’re dealing with animals. The animals are ridden by humans, and humans make mistakes. It’s not like we haven’t seen the kind of enterprise used by McNamara before, rewarded. Just last season we had Sovereign win the Irish Derby under Padraig Beggy in near identical circumstances.

These circumstances mean it’s a hard race to evaluate for me however, but if you fancied a horse and feel like you didn’t get a fair run for your money, I wouldn’t lose faith in said horse just yet. At least one more chance should be afforded to those below par efforts.

To be fair, Epsom is the type of track any horse can be forgiven a poor run at, add in how this year’s Derby played out, and that is especially the case.

Declan Rix
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