Nicholas Godfrey on the Derby: Serpentine – a plausible winner in an implausible race?

Horse Racing Serpentine Epsom Investec Derby
Serpentine and Emmet McNamara won an Investec Derby like no other. Photo: Racenews
Horse Racing Planet Nicholas Godfrey

There’s nothing black and white about a remarkable performance by Serpentine in the Investec Derby on Saturday. NICHOLAS GODFREY tries to make sense of a seemingly senseless race

Well, that was a bizarre spectacle and no mistake. “The 241st Derby and the strangest Derby ever,” suggested Ed Chamberlin, the personable anchor of ITV Racing in Britain.

“That must have been the weirdest Derby ever for a number of reasons,” Chamberlin went on, and William Buick clearly agreed.

“Why is it so quiet round here?” quipped the rider after his unlikely Epsom third on 66-1 shot Amhran Na Bhfiann – a horse nobody had ever heard of, nobody could spell and fewer could pronounce.

So what was so bizarre? Why was it so quiet? We all know the answers. There was, of course, one blindingly obvious reason why Serpentine’s extraordinary Investec Derby triumph allowed more than one broadcaster to invoke the cliche of ‘stunned silence’: there was virtually nobody at Epsom.

Owing to coronavirus, this was a Derby like no other, run the same day as the Oaks, a month later than it should have been, with a diminished purse. There were a few owners present, but even if Frankel had beaten Sea-Bird in a photo with Dancing Brave closing for third, there would not have been too much noise.

But the unprecedented atmosphere provided merely the backdrop to an astonishing edition of Britain’s senior Classic that has sharply divided opinion.

Stealing a Classic – or employing brilliant tactics?

In one corner stand those who reckon Emmet McNamara stole the race on Serpentine, pure and simple, being left alone in front while his colleagues … well, let’s just say several of them would probably fancy another try.

On the other hand are those who aver this was a case of the ‘best horse on the day’, surely a good horse on any day, given a brilliant tactical ride.

In the land of the kneejerk – that’s social media, by the way – both sides were pretty trenchant in their views.

“What a farce! All the other jockeys want shooting!” or “Stop moaning, whingebag – it’s a great race, what’s the problem?” offer a very basic summation of two extreme viewpoints, usually expressed within the 280-character limit, which doesn’t allow for many shades of grey.

You’ve got to love Twitter, it’s so black and white. Mind you, if you really want to poke the bear, just refer to the ‘Epsom’ Derby … they don’t like it, even if you’re trying to differentiate from the Kentucky copycat version.

Now, any reader would be within their rights to note at this stage how I have managed to write nearly 400 words without actually expressing an opinion myself. Quite the skill for a columnist, and one with which regulars to this slot will doubtless be painfully familiar.

A Derby destined to be one of the more memorable

But the thing is, I’m not sure. In his Racing Post column, Britain’s racing journalist of the year Lee Mottershead said the Derby left him “bewitched, bothered and bewildered” and, at the risk of splinters from sitting on the fence, I am largely of the same opinion.

Risking accusations of triteness, part of me is bound to suggest that the 241st Derby is already destined to become one of the more memorable episodes in Epsom’s wonderfully storied history. The glorious uncertainty, if you like: part of racing life’s rich, varied tapestry with a never-to-be-forgotten Derby-coloured tinge. Surely we can all agree on that.

However, it would be disingenuous to suggest other than that my initial response after the race – during the race, in fact – was that this was a deeply unsatisfactory contest. I know this sounds ludicrously emotional but you spend all year waiting for this and you end up feeling a little cheated by events. Diddums, eh?

Probably sounds immature, a little petulant perhaps, and once the cold light of reason was allowed its head, I stopped seeing Saturday’s unique Derby from either extreme viewpoint. Which makes more sense, because surely neither is entirely mutually exclusive?

A race that made the case for on-screen sectionals

Is it not more rational to see Serpentine’s victory as both an excellent ride on a good horse and a case of those in behind ceding the advantage more than they needed to, meaning we have to take the result with a pinch of salt? That is not the same as saying it was a fluke.

Horse Racing Emmet McNamara Serpentine Epsom Investec Derby
Emmet McNamara after his Derby win: “I I think I got a little bit of a freebie!.” Photo: Racenews

One side issue here: seldom can the case for on-screen sectional times have been better advertised. To my eyes, the obvious difference between Ballydoyle’s Oaks and Derby front-runners was that the filly Passion was part of a contested pace alongside a John Gosden no-hoper. They were obviously going too fast, and destined to come back.

Yet the fractions (issued much later, plus perhaps more reliable versions from the likes of Simon Rowlands at Attheraces website) gave the lie to this reading of events. Serpentine certainly wasn’t going much slower than the easily extinguished Passion and accompanying Tiempo Vuela; indeed, for the first half-mile, he might have gone a tick faster. Timeform have the Oaks pair only a couple of lengths ‘ahead’ of Serpentine at halfway.

What is undeniable is that the well-bred Serpentine was out on his own, seemingly gifted what his rider described as a “freebie”, not being pushed by anything. An entirely different scenario from the Oaks – yet the jockeys on his rivals played it the same way, believing the leader was bound to come back.

Couldn’t they do anything? Or wouldn’t they?

Were they unaware of how easily he was going? Did they not recall Sovereign’s six-length victory in last year’s Irish Derby? You don’t let sons of Galileo alone on the lead over a mile and a half, do you?

Maybe they simply could not do anything, rather than would not do anything; maybe they were afraid to do anything. Either way, the outcome was that Serpentine scooted down the hill for those race-winning mid-contest sectionals under a finely judged ride from McNamara. 

He was given too much rope, for whatever reason, but instead of hanging himself, he hanged his rivals. There may well have been legitimate race-riding reasons for nobody’s being willing to chase the leader until it was far too late – stamina doubts, bad luck in running, etc – but the fact remains he was handed a significant advantage. That doesn’t mean Serpentine can’t be thought a worthy winner, however implausible it all looked.

Finally, though, a word about Team Ballydoyle – after the obvious caveats about how great Aidan O’Brien must be, and what a legend Galileo is. Much ink is spent discussing their version of ‘team tactics’, often with pejorative overtones.

What is less well publicised is how their mob-handed approach can allow them to cover a multitude of scenarios by potentially sacrificing a couple of runners. If you can run six well-bred, fairly talented sons of Galileo in a Classic, you can afford to send one ahead just in case (Serpentine), or leave one at the rear in case they go too fast and the race falls apart (Wings Of Eagles).

Horse Racing Serpentine Epsom Investec Derby
Serpentine and Emmet McNamara won the Derby by 5½ lengths. Photo: Racenews

They are all running their own races – but in the former scenario, less well-resourced teams cannot afford to take on the leader without compromising their own chances. It was noticeable in the Oaks, for example, how the rival that ensured Passion was spent by the straight was a massive longshot trained by John Gosden, who also had Love’s main market rival Frankly Darling.

The likes of, say, Ed Walker simply cannot field a half-dozen horses to protect English King against a falsely run race, or try to slip the field. They don’t have a team where it barely matters which one wins, as long as one of them does.

Serpentine – not quite the same as Slip Anchor

Moreover, plainly there is rather less downside for a jockey to make a bold, potentially foolhardy move on an unfancied horse ignored than to do the same on a higher-profile animal.

If you try something outlandish on a 33-1 shot, you probably won’t get torn apart by critics: different if, say, you’re riding Mister Baileys. Imagine if Oisin Murphy had kicked Kameko on and then run out of petrol? We’d all be labelling him a moron.

This is why Serpentine, visual impression aside, isn’t quite the same as Slip Anchor, when Steve Cauthen had the guts and brilliance to set the fractions on the favourite, miles ahead of dozy rivals who had never seen such tactics before. That was revolutionary; Serpentine was an intelligent ride under favourable circumstances by a capable, likeable jockey who deserves his day in the sun.

Serpentine is also probably a good horse, as the sectional times suggest, and yet another testament to the genius of Aidan O’Brien, the efficiency of Coolmore, the greatness of Galileo.

This was no fluke. Probably. Maybe an implausible race produced a plausible winner, though the identity of the second and third – also second and third throughout – will give succour to those who suggest something doesn’t feel quite right, and Serpentine may well make a lovely addition to the Coolmore NH stallion roster.

And you know what? He would never beat Love in a month of pancake days.

More Derby fallout …

‘I didn’t expect to be sitting here’ – Emmet McNamara on his amazing Derby win with Serpentine

A ‘freebie’ for Serpentine, Kameko to cut back, Triple Crown for Love? Here’s the Derby takeaway

‘We had a hopeless task’ – Martin Dwyer rues interference which cost Pyledriver his Derby chance

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