Kevin Blake

Kevin Blake analyses last Saturday's Derby and Oaks at Epsom, won by the Aidan O'Brien-trained pair of Serpentine and Love, respectively.

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What really happened in the Derby and the Oaks?  

This year’s Derby looked to have everything on paper, but what we got was a conclusion that many seemed to find unsatisfactory. It is a rare spectacle to see a Derby that has been absolutely blown apart early in the straight, but that is what we saw on Saturday with the Aidan O’Brien-trained 25/1 shot Serpentine soon building up a significant lead and never at any stage looking likely to come back to the field, winning by 5½ lengths.  

So, what happened? Was it a farce? A fluke? Were all the jockeys in behind at fault? That seemed to be the gist of the general reaction after the race, but closer analysis reveals an altogether different interpretation of events.  

The beauty of having two Classics such as the Oaks and the Derby run over the same course and distance on the same day is that it very easy to make comparisons between the two. Indeed, it was a surprise not to see a side-by-side analysis of the two races conducted after the Derby, as doing so would have shown much of the post-race analysis to be misguided.  

Firstly, the notion that Serpentine was given a freebie in front whilst the two pace setters in the Oaks went far too fast is completely wrong. Why? Because side-by-side video analysis shows that they went almost an identical pace for much of the race.  

The leaders in both races were all-but upsides each other for the first five furlongs of each race. On the descent down the hill, the pace-setting fillies went approximately two lengths ahead of Serpentine and maintained that gap to the five-furlong pole. It was descending around Tattenham Corner that things changed, as by the time they hit the final road crossing approximately 750 yards from the finishing line, Serpentine had passed out the fillies and gone approximately five lengths in front of them.  

Thus, far from getting a freebie compared to the leaders in the Oaks, Serpentine got to the final road crossing approximately five lengths faster than them!  

Serpentine wins the Derby at Epsom
Rounding Tattenham Corner, the bird, Serpentine, had already flown

From the road crossing, things got very interesting. Serpentine did not stop as many expected him to and he galloped from there to the finish line in approximately 41.35 seconds which represents a finishing speed of approximately 107%. This is slower than the finishing speed par for the Derby of 111%, again reiterating that he did not get anything like a soft lead in front.  

The comparisons get even more interesting when one looks at what Love did in the closing stages of the Oaks. She ran the same closing sectional in 38.9 seconds which equates to a finishing speed of 113.6%.  

What this notably fast finish of Love also serves to illustrate is that the notion that Serpentine’s rivals faced an impossible task in chasing him down in the straight is also misguided.  

If one wishes to delve into the world of the theoretical and ask how Love would have fared if running the same race in the Derby as she did in the Oaks, it makes for an absolutely riveting conclusion.  

Had Love been in the Derby, she would have been towards the rear of the field in the early stages and steadily improved into mid-division in the chasing group by halfway. By the five-furlong pole, she would have had steadily improved to have been just in behind those that were leading the chasing pack. By the time she got to the road crossing at the top of the straight, Love would have been contesting second position upsides the eventual runner-up Khalifa Sat.  

From there, one of the most dramatic finishes in the history of theoretical races would have transpired, as having spotted Serpentine approximately 13 lengths into the straight, Love produced such a power-packed finish that she would have nailed Serpentine with 50 yards to run and beaten him by approximately two lengths.  

Bear in mind that in this hypothetical comparison Love would have carried the same weight as Serpentine (she would have received a 3lb sex allowance had she actually ran in the Derby) and it is also worth considering that Ryan Moore gave her far from a full drive in the Oaks, only using his stick once in the closing stages.  

I’ll leave it to my colleague Simon Rowlands to better hammer down and contextualise the finer details, when he tackles the race on Monday, of what was achieved by the winners of the Derby and Oaks. However, the basic analysis untaken above serves to debunk some of the more common theories put forward in the immediate aftermath of the race.  

To this analyst, Serpentine produced an excellent front-running performance. While he benefited from some lack of enterprise from his rival’s riders, it was perhaps more so the underperformance of much of his main opposition that led to the extent of his dominance on the day, but neither of those contributing factors are his fault. To devalue his performance or label it as a fluke is very unfair and indeed misguided. He will warrant respect wherever he goes from here.  

As for Love, her performance in the Oaks looks absolutely tremendous whichever way one chooses to assess it. As impressive as she was in the 1000 Guineas, she looked even better in the Oaks. A potential bid for the St Leger and/or the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe will all be considered, but whatever the trip, whatever the sex or age of her opposition, she will represent a very serious challenge for any horse going forward. Love is the real deal.  

Credit to Emmet McNamara  

Credit must also be given to Emmet McNamara. Coverage of his victory was inevitably dominated by comparisons to Padraig Beggy, another full-time member of the Ballydoyle that doesn’t take many rides, but has made a habit of popping up and springing surprises in Group 1 races. While they may be comparable in that regard, Emmet is his own man and deserves individual credit on the biggest day of his career.  

A son of the National Hunt trainer Eric McNamara, Emmet was crowned Champion Apprentice in Ireland in 2008, but increasing weight was anything but a help in his efforts to make the transition to the bigger stage. Having joined Ballydoyle six years ago, he popped up to win the Beresford Stakes on Port Douglas in 2015 and the Derrinstown Stud Derby Trial on Douglas Macarthur in 2017, but his Derby victory represents by far the biggest victory of his career.  

Just a week ago, McNamara came within a head of winning the Irish Derby on Tiger Moth. It was by far the closest he had ever come to winning a Group 1. If there was betting on such things, it would almost certainly have been odds-on that he would never come as close to winning a Classic again.  

He would have been forgiven as being only human for being on the floor after such an agonising loss. Less than a week later, he has won the Derby. What a game!  

Shades of Slip Anchor  

In terms of the response to the Derby, unsurprisingly there was a great amount of bemusement, frustration and indeed anger following the race. As Serpentine was a big price and very much an unexpected winner for most, many simply did not want to believe what they had seen, so the race and his performance were derided.  

Contrast this to the not-dissimilar winning performance of Slip Anchor when he was sent off as the 9/4 favourite for the 1985 renewal of the race. That was hailed as a brilliant ride, a spectacular performance and one of the most memorable renewals of the Derby.  

Odds and expectations are obviously a huge part of our sport, but just because an outcome wasn’t widely expected, that shouldn’t mean that it is fair game for automatic derision and scepticism.  

It isn’t the fault of the horse or their connections if they outperform our expectations of them. They deserve a fairer shake than they often get in the aftermath of such results.

Hoping to conquer marathon challenge second-time round

I am running a marathon on Sunday to raise funds for the Irish Injured Jockeys. Three years ago, I ran a marathon for the first time and it went absolutely horrendously. My body went to bits on me in the final eight kilometres and while I managed to finish the race, I couldn’t walk without crutches for a few weeks afterwards!

So, this is unlikely to be much fun, but I’ve trained hard and I’m ready to have another crack at it in aid of a great cause. 

You can read more about it and make a donation on the following link:

Any donations and/or support would be greatly appreciated.

Kevin Blake
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