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Serpentine Pulls Off 25-1 Epsom Derby Upset

Since the Investec Derby (G1) was born 240 years ago there had never been a stranger Derby Day, and it is unlikely there had been a stranger Derby than the one stolen July 4 by Serpentine on a near silent Epsom Downs.

Even had this wonderfully wacky racecourse been packed to the rafters it is unlikely much noise would have been made, for flabbergasted and bemused were the overriding reactions from those few hundred people who saw the sport’s premier classic plundered by a jockey who had never ridden in the Derby nor won any race of any kind since October.

Yet while this was an altogether new experience for Emmet McNamara, it was extremely familiar territory for the genius that is Aidan O’Brien, who stands alone as the Investec Derby’s record-winning trainer after seeing Serpentine make almost every yard of the running to score for the Coolmore ‘Lads’ and the colt’s superstar father Galileo.

O’Brien has now won the Derby eight times, more than any trainer in history, while Galileo, who became the Ballydoyle master’s inaugural Epsom champion in 2001, has now sired five victors of this cherished prize, more than any stallion in history.

On top of all that, O’Brien and Galileo were also connected through Love, runaway heroine of the Investec Oaks (G1) just 75 minutes earlier.

Love came from off the pace to post her devastating triumph. Serpentine, who only broke his duck in a Curragh maiden last Saturday, could hardly have done it more differently. From just before halfway he began to grow his lead, which as he rolled exquisitely down to Tattenham Corner became huge. Khalifa Sat led the chasing pack and continued to do so all the way up the home straight but none of the 15 pursuers could reel in Serpentine.

At the winning line there were 5 1/2 lengths between first and second, the pair followed past the post by another Ballydoyle outsider, Amhran Na Bhfiann. As television viewers around the world watched horses sent off at 25-1, 50-1, and 66-1 fill the podium positions, market leaders Kameko and English King took the next two spots, closer than they had ever been to Derby glory but still miles behind.

With the front two at the start also the front two at the finish, it is inevitable questions will be asked of the defeated jockeys. However, even if some got things wrong, it is indisputable that McNamara got things brilliantly right, just one week after narrowly failing to end his long losing run on Serpentine’s stable companion Tiger Moth in the Dubai Duty Free Irish Derby (G1).

Serpentine and Emmet McNamara<br>
The Investec Derby <br>
Epsom Downs - 4th July 2020<br>
Photo: Megan Ridgwell

Serpentine and Emmet McNamara after winning the Epsom Derby

“I’ve been saving myself!” joked the 30-year-old when his drought was raised. That was a great answer. He gave another when asked whether he was shocked to have tasted group 1 glory for the first time in the greatest of all group 1 prizes.

“Aidan O’Brien filled me with a huge amount of confidence, so it’s not a complete surprise,” he said. “He told me if we got things right he was one horse who actually could win the Derby. I actually did believe him. If he tells you the sky is green, you believe him. 

“During the race I thought I was getting quite an easy lead. I never looked behind but all I could hear was the horse breathing. I knew I wasn’t going a million miles an hour, so I was imagining they might be ignoring me. I was hoping the clock in my head was working a little bit because I thought I’d saved enough through the first half of the race.

“I never heard a thing. I think that’s what makes it feel a little bit more surreal,” added McNamara. “The stands were empty and I didn’t hear a horse. I feel like I’m going to wake up after riding a bit of work. It’s a bit unbelievable, to be honest.”

Also unbelievable are O’Brien’s Epsom achievements, but on this occasion he was forced to enjoy the action from home, where one of his children foresaw what was about to unfold.

“We all watched the race here together,” said O’Brien. “Donnacha said after five furlongs: ‘Emmet wins here.’ He was in front, he was very comfortable, and there was no one was going to challenge him. He was not going to stop. 

“Emmet gave him a brilliant ride. He judged the pace well and he knew he was on a horse that would stay every yard of the mile and a half.”

That praise for the jockey was followed by praise for just about everyone else. Characteristically, the most successful Derby trainer there has ever been deflected all praise from himself. 

“We know the road is so long with so many links in the chain,” he said. “You never expect anything, you always do your best, hope it will happen, and then accept the result.”

Comprehending this result may be the hard thing.

“Why is it so quiet here?” asked William Buick as he returned to the weighing room having finished third for O’Brien.

The man who finished first will take part in Sunday’s Prix du Jockey Club (G1) but, due to COVID-19 restrictions, must then spend 14 days in quarantine when returning home to Ireland.

Serpentine and Emmet McNamara<br>
The Investec Derby <br>
Epsom Downs - 4th July 2020<br>
Photo: Megan Ridgwell

Emmet McNamara hoists the Epsom Derby trophy

“I’ll take 14 months in quarantine!” said McNamara, the most enormous smile on his face.

Given what had just happened on this strangest of strange Epsom afternoons, it was a perfectly understandable reaction.

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