The paradox of the truly dominant sports performer is that the better they do, the less impressive it can seem. "Another All-Ireland for the Dubs," "Another Grand Slam for Serena," "Another Major for Tiger." Ho-hum.
idan O'Brien's status as the highest achiever in the history of Irish sport has led to him being underestimated in the same way. Yet there was something genuinely extraordinary about the Classic double he executed at Epsom last weekend.
His eighth Derby victory would have been notable simply because it put him top of the all-time list. But the nature of this victory was unforgettable. As putative pacemaker Serpentine galloped merrily clear of the pack you waited for him to be reeled in.
You waited. And waited as the lead grew bigger and bigger. It was 12 lengths as Serpentine turned into the home straight and with a couple of furlongs left it was obvious he wasn't coming back. Rathkeale jockey Emmet McNamara had pulled off one of the most audacious heists in the history of racing.
The 25/1 shot Serpentine finished five and a half lengths ahead of 50/1 shot Khalifa Sat with Amhran Na Bhfiann at 66/1 half a length further back. The first four horses in the betting filled the next four places as though they had been contesting a race within a race, one conforming to the dictates of logic.
Less than a month earlier Serpentine had finished fifth in a maiden at The Curragh while McNamara had neither ridden in the Derby nor won a Group 1 race before Saturday's shock. Few of O'Brien's 38 Classic victories have been so unexpected.
And few of them have been more impressive than Love's victory in the Oaks earlier that afternoon. If Serpentine's win had been memorable because everyone loves an upset, Love's satisfied our yearning to witness something truly great.
Love had been impressive enough in the 1000 Guineas where her four and a half length winning margin had been the second largest in the last 20 years. But as she accelerated away in the final furlong last Saturday you thought of Shergar, Troy and other immortal performers who'd left Epsom fields spread-eagled behind them.
She had nine lengths to spare at the finish, her time not just a race record but faster than that clocked by Serpentine when winning the Derby. It was Love first and the rest nowhere.
To paraphrase Foreigner, we want to know how good Love is. The question should be answered before the end of the year. There is the King George and Queen Elizabeth Stakes at Ascot on Saturday week and most temptingly the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe which O'Brien (pictured) has won only twice previously.
The two opponents most likely to bar Love's way at Longchamp in October locked horns at Sandown the day after the Oaks and Derby. Charlie Appleby's Ghaiyyath added the Eclipse Stakes to the Coronation Cup won in record time at Newmarket pretty comfortably but it was the runner-up who really caught the eye.
When Enable's bid for a history-making third Arc in a row was heartbreakingly foiled as Waldgeist came past her in the final strides last year, it looked as though that particular dream had died. But the six-year-old has come back for more and her battling second place was all the more impressive as trainer John Gosden said beforehand that she was only about 85 per cent fit and badly in need of the race.
Gosden didn't have a bad weekend either with Mishriff giving him a first ever Prix du Jockey Club (French Derby) winner on the Sunday to go with his best trainer award at Royal Ascot where he edged out O'Brien.
O'Brien himself was going for a first ever win in the Prix du Diane (French Oaks) with Peaceful but saw his filly finish third in a blanket finish. A head in front of Peaceful was Alpine Star, confirming Jessica Harrington's emergence as a significant force on the Flat, and a head in front of Alpine Star was Fancy Blue.
The winning trainer only took out his licence at the start of the year and had saddled his first winner at Limerick six days earlier. Step forward Donnacha O'Brien, son of Aidan, and also brother of Joseph who three years ago denied his father a first ever victory in the Melbourne Cup. This is the thanks you get. Warren Gatland, whose son Bryn kicked a last gasp winning drop goal against him last month, would sympathise.
Against all the odds, it's been a great racing summer.
The Last Word
CHRIS FROOME'S departure from Ineos (formerly Team Sky) marks the end of one of the most remarkable partnerships in modern sport. When a 24-year-old Froome joined Sky in September 2009 few would have predicted a particularly bright future for him.
He’d finished 83rd in the one Tour de France he’d contested and in that year’s Giro d’Italia had been disqualified when sheer exhaustion forced him to hang on to the back of a motorbike.
But by 2011 the Kenyan-born rider was winning the Vuelta and he added victories in the 2013, 2015, 2016 and 2017 Tours De France. Like Bradley Wiggins before him, Froome had benefitted from the performance enhancing magic wrought by Sky supremo Dave Brailsford with his ground-breaking ‘Marginal Gains’ philosophy.
Not since Lance Armstrong had there been such a dominant rider in the Tour. But now the divorce between Dave and Froomie has been finalised and from next season the latter will be riding with Israel Start-Up Nation where his team-mates will include Ireland’s Dan Martin.
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THE Times Literary Supplement might not seem like the most likely destination for the sports fan but they’ve just produced an excellent sports themed issue which includes fine pieces on the epic 1998 Tour de France duel between Marco Pantani and Jan Ullrich, South African sport during the apartheid era and the world’s most fanatical football supporters.
Best of all is a piece on the legendary boxer Daniel ‘The Fighting Jew’ Mendoza, written by London-based Mayo poet Declan Ryan and available to read on the magazine’s website. East Ender Mendoza was the all weights champion of England in the late 18th century, defeating heavier and taller opponents despite standing just five foot seven and weighing 160 pounds, in part due to his pioneering scientific style of boxing.
Those were tough times, Mendoza’s most famous victory against Richard Humphries in 1790 came after 72 bare knuckle rounds. The champ also had to battle the rampant anti-semitism of the day. He’d have put manners on DeSean Jackson quick enough.
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THAT the reaction to Danny Welbeck and Christian Benteke both scoring on Tuesday was a large social media chortle show how far the stock of both has fallen. Welbeck’s goal for Watford was his first since August 2018 and Benteke’s for Crystal Palace just his second of the season.
Yet there was a time when both players seemed on the verge of great things. The dozen goals Welbeck hit for Manchester United in the 2011-’12 season when he was just 21 suggested an imminent breakthrough. Amazingly, he hasn’t matched that total since.
Benteke’s £32.5m transfer from Aston Villa to Liverpool at the age of 24 seemed to confirm his arrival as an elite striker. But his failure at Anfield has sent him spiralling downwards, the last three seasons have seen a player who scored 49 goals in 101 games for Aston Villa manage just six in 74 for Crystal Palace.