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Serpentine casts a spell in freakish Derby

Brilliant McNamara gives O'Brien eighth win in world's greatest race

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Serpentine ridden by Emmet McNamara wins the Investec Derby. Photo: Dan Abraham/Pool via Reuters

Serpentine ridden by Emmet McNamara wins the Investec Derby. Photo: Dan Abraham/Pool via Reuters

REUTERS

Serpentine ridden by Emmet McNamara wins the Investec Derby. Photo: Dan Abraham/Pool via Reuters

One May morning 240 years ago "a select and fashionable company" rode to Epsom to see a new horse race. The women in the group "had been dancing until early morning and their pencilled eyelids were a little weary", according to the author Alan Macey in 1930, in The Romance of the Derby Stakes.

"These high-born ladies were inclined to boredom; they had seen most of the pageant of life and were inclined towards ennui. The prospect of a new horse-race could scarcely be expected to excite them."

This early trickle of dissolute toffs developed into a torrent as the Derby grew into the world's greatest Flat race and a carnival once described as "a national day out for aristocrats and artisans, gipsies and generals, viscounts and villains". The 'Blue Riband of the Turf' has already been through a difficult phase of losing spectators before Covid-19 removed them altogether for the victory of Serpentine at 25-1 in the 241st running of the race.

The Derby has risen a few notches on the excitement scale since 1780 but there has surely never been a race like this in its history. The starting prices of the first three home were 25-1, 50-1 and 66-1, with the 2,000 Guineas winner and 5-2 favourite Kameko fourth and the fancied English King back in fifth.

The silence that greeted Serpentine's front-running win was much the same as it would have been had the Downs been packed with a lubricated cross-section of British society. Piped cheering would have sounded wrong.

The combined SPs evoked Commander In Chief's win at 15-2 in 1993 from two 150-1 shots. The tricast paid a staggering £55,977.83. Aidan O'Brien, the winning trainer, scored a record eighth Derby win with one of the least fancied of his six runners.

In the spirit of keeping one's distance, Love won the Oaks for the same O'Brien stable on the same card by a whopping nine lengths. So the combined winning distances for the two mile-and-a-half classics was 14 and a half lengths: margins more redolent of Cheltenham than Epsom. And there was something of the champion two-mile steeplechaser in the way Serpentine burst around Tattenham Corner and stayed on up the hill.

O'Brien was not there because the return trip would have forced him to spend 14 days in quarantine when he has "too much to do" to be locked inside. It would take a strong room to keep O'Brien in.

His domination of the Derby is no gift to punters. His 2017 winner Wings of Eagles went off at 40-1. So well blessed is his yard with Derby-ready thoroughbreds that any one of his runners can prevail.

The appeal of the 2020 renewal was in its sheer unusualness - the result, not the huge empty spaces, which everyone was expecting. A closed-doors Derby found a result that belonged equally well in the realm of the freakish.

An event once overwhelmed by hedonists was forced by medical protocols to erect three-and-a-half miles of fencing to prevent incursions by curious punters. By keeping people out, rather than waving them in, the Derby had to deny its own raison d'etre and fall back instead on the allure of the race itself, which was never lacking.

The days when Parliament would adjourn to allow MPs to join the pilgrimage to the Surrey Downs have receded, but the race is fighting its way back up the sporting menu in the face of football's ubiquity. The start time here was pushed back 25 minutes to 4.55pm to avoid clashes with the Premier League's 3pm and 5.30pm kick-offs. That window allowed the nation's punters to see their bets go down the drain before Wolves versus Arsenal.

This time the circus feel of the infield gave way to empty downland: a vast roll of unoccupied green stretching to the furthest running rail, where many Derby and Oaks contenders experience for the first time the funfair twists and turns of a race which, had it been invented 20 years ago, would not be staged on such an idiosyncratic track.

Emmet McNamara, on his first Derby ride, spoke of the surprise felt by his horse as he was trying to find his feet. When he found them, the rest of the field were pummelled. In the winner's enclosure, Serpentine barely seemed to have had a race.

More owners were in, ITV Racing's presenters wore traditional morning dress and the media presence was expanded to include more journalists, but the one-and-a-half mile ride across undulations and cambers has been the same since revellers first travelled in 1780 to observe the brainchild of Edward Smith Stanley, the 12th Earl of Derby. Except that Derbys are not meant to be won like this. Or run like this.

Historians will feel they have caught a butterfly for quizzes 50 years from now: "Which 25-1 horse won for a jockey who had not ridden a winner since October, in front of a paying crowd of zero, from a 50-1 shot?"

This shock to the system for punters came on a day when the racecourse displayed its talent for keeping the show alive for almost two-and-a-half centuries. Epsom pushed the boat out, even if there was hardly anyone on board.

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