Serpentine stays on from the front to steal Epsom Derby for Aidan O’Brien

Trainer lands record eighth win in Classic as Emmet McNamara catches them sleeping

Only a week after breaking his maiden the 25-1 outsider Serpentine won the greatest race of all when delivering Aidan O'Brien a record eighth Investec Epsom Derby on Saturday.

In the unique circumstances of a behind closed door Derby, racing’s ‘Blue Riband’ threw up a stunning scenario as Co. Limerick jockey Emmet McNamara grabbed the race from the start and never let go.

Serpentine soon led, extended his lead coming down the hill, and as his 15 opponents appeared to dismiss him as a pacemaker for his better fancied stable companions, early in the straight McNamara found himself up to 15 lengths clear.

Maybe the lack of noise around the famous switchback lulled his rivals into somnolence. But by the time they eventually twigged their biggest danger was not among them but ahead of them it was too late.


The gap narrowed in the closing stage but at the line Serpentine still had five and a half lengths in hand of the 50-1 shot Khalifa Set with another Ballydoyle outsider, Amhran Na Bhfiann, belying 66-1 odds in third.

The 5-2 favourite Kameko was a nose behind him in fourth under Oisin Murphy. Both McNamara and Tom Marquand on the runner up were having their first Derby rides.

A gigantic Tricast payout of almost 56,000-1 to anyone able to predict the first three told of an outcome as weird as the eerie environment.

Successfully making the running is hardly unknown in the Derby. The great American jockey Steve Cauthen managed it twice in three years with Slip Anchor (1985) and Reference Point (1987.)

It’s not unknown either for O’Brien to throw up a shock winner under a low-profile rider. Three years ago Padraig Beggy pulled off a 40-1 victory on Wings Of Eagles.

But this was a combination that would have stunned even a full house into silence. As it was the eerie atmosphere felt entirely apposite.

McNamara, a former champion apprentice in 2008, and the son of Co. Limerick trainer, Eric McNamara, has become a key work-rider during the last six years at O’Brien’s Ballydoyle base.

However his tally of winners has been miniscule during that time. Last year he had three winners from just 32 mounts in Ireland. In 2018 he had a single success. So far this season at home he has had eight unsuccessful rides.

The potential pay-off has always been the chance of making the most of an O’Brien ‘spare’ on the big stage.

But the 30-year-old jockey looked to just failed to do that just a week ago when beaten a head in the Irish Derby on Tiger Moth.

Earlier on that Curragh card, the hitherto unheralded Serpentine won his first race in four starts by nine lengths. Seven days later horse and jockey combined to write themselves into history in the 241st Derby.

“I think I got a little bit of a freebie really,” McNamara said afterwards with masterly understatement.

“I had a huge amount of confidence in the horse having spoken to Aidan during the week. He said he thought the horse would stay a mile and six furlongs well.

“He told me to give him a breather around the six furlong marker and then to keep building to that winning post because the horse would keep going. Thank God he was right.

“I couldn’t see a thing around me and I didn’t really want to be looking so I wasn’t aware of how far clear I was. All I could hear was the horse breathing.

“It’s surreal to have won this race. I can’t believe it. I hope Eric Mc is OK at home and hasn’t died of a heart attack of anything!” the jockey added.

Prior to this , McNamara’s biggest success had come in the Group Two Beresford Stakes on Port Douglas for O’Brien in 2015.

It was history for O’Brien who became the most successful trainer in Derby history with an eighth success just 19 years after his first with Serpentine’s sire Galileo.

“I’m absolutely delighted for Emmet. He gave him an incredible ride so I’m over the moon. They all run on their merits and we give them the best instructions for each horse to win the race.

“He stayed well and there was no point waiting with him with no pace. We’re always delighted if one of them wins,” O’Brien said.

“He always had the Derby pedigree. He took a bit of time to come last year and just had the one run. Then this year he had his first run at the Curragh over a mile and a quarter and was hemmed in and couldn’t get out.

“But he won very impressively last week. There was no doubt with his performance the last day he had to take his chance,” he added.

For Serpentine’s opposition though this Derby will have left a sense of frustration perhaps summed up by Ed Walker, trainer of the second favourite English King who finished fifth under Frankie Dettori.

“The way the race panned out was frustrating, purely and simply,” Walker reported. “A Derby with no pace. There’s no such thing these days really and we needed pace.”.

Earlier O’Brien also landed an eighth Oaks as Love ran away with the fillies Classic to the tune of nine lengths under Ryan Moore.

If Serpentine came out of the blue, then Love only confirmed her classic credentials in becoming the 49th filly to complete the 1,000 Guineas-Oaks double.

Minding did the same for O’Brien in 2016 but quotes as low as 5-1 for the Arc in October suggest Love could rank with any filly that’s been through O’Brien’s hands.

In contrast Serpentine is a general 25-1 shot for the Arc.

“Love is very special. It is very hard to say you would ever have a better filly than her; we saw what she did in the Guineas. I don’t know how far she won that by, three or four lengths, and she doubled it today, and it is only her second run of the year,” O’Brien said.

“We will wait and see what is next and the lads will decide that, but obviously the Irish Oaks is a possibility. We will see how she is over the next few days before we make any decisions, but that was always going to be a possibility.

“You would have to think about the Arc in the autumn. We know what three-year-old fillies can do in the Arc. We would definitely have to think about it.

“I guess it will all depend on how she comes out of today and whether she has a midsummer break now or gets in another run and has a break after that, but the Arc has to be a definite possibility,” he added.

A more immediate French target is on the mind of Saturday’s hero of the hour as McNamara travels from Epsom to Chantilly tomorrow for a French Derby ride on another outsider, Fort Myers.

Along with Seamus Heffernan, he then faces a 14 day isolation period on his return to Ireland under current Covid-19 restrictions.

Victory in the most famous race of all in return for 14 days will surely feel like the greatest swap of all.

Brian O'Connor

Brian O'Connor

Brian O'Connor is the racing correspondent of The Irish Times. He also writes the Tipping Point column