The Epsom Derby has a habit of throwing up shock results from time to time.
Epsom racecourse is not a regular oval, flat race track. It is undulating, culminating in the downhill sweep around Tattenham Corner, which is angled and cambered, and which often sees fancied horses changing lead legs, and becoming, gait-wise, crossed up. This robs them of momentum at a critical phase of the race.
Every year, a lone horse and jockey will try to lead from the front from the top of the hill to the winning post. Usually, it is an outsider, a horse whose trainer is confident will stay 1.5 miles, but lacking in speed. And normally, the lone ranger is swallowed up by the pack about 2 furlongs out, as his staying ability is trumped by the acceleration of higher-quality horses.
Once in a while, however, the lone ranger horse does cross the line first. In 1974, Snow Knight, a colt with next to no racing record, and a suspect temperament, was discounted in pre-race analysis, starting as a rank outsider at 50/1. He further dismayed everybody by dumping jockey Brian Taylor within a short period of time of him mounting in the paddock. This was SOP for Snow Knight, who was a fractious animal. Taylor swiftly remounted, none the worse for wear, and Snow Knight went to the start line, albeit still arguing with his handlers as he was led into the stalls.
Taylor slipped the field over half a mile out and went for home, confident that Snow Knight would stay the distance. He had run well in the Lingfield Derby Trial, a race at the same distance on a circuit that resembles Epsom. Everybody sat and watched, expecting Snow Knight to be swallowed up by the field, but around 2 furlongs out, the terrible truth dawned, both among the brains of the pursuing jockeys, and the spectators, that Snow Knight was not coming back to the pack. He accelerated well, and held off the pursuers to win by 2 lengths. He actually pulled away from his closest pursuer in the last furlong. He had speed as well as stamina.
Unlike some Derby fields, this was not a weak race. Snow Knight was not the second coming of Airborne. High-quality horses such as Bustino (who had won the Lingfield Derby Trial) trailed him home in the race. Snow Knight, it turned out, was a far better race horse than anybody expected. His record in the UK was spotty, mainly because after the Derby he was mostly entered in races where he was competing against older horses, but sent to race in the USA at age 4, he did very well indeed,despite still being a pain in the ass temperament-wise. At the end of 1975 he was voted Champion American Turf Horse.
Yesterday at Epsom, we had a repeat of the 1974 race, when Serpentine, an unfancied outsider, was sent into the lead of the race a long way out. None of the other horses followed him, and kept tracking each other and running their own race. They suddenly found themselves with no chance, as Serpentine kept moving at the same speed, and they barely made a dent in his lead. He crossed the line 5+ lengths clear.
It remains to be seen whether Serpentine’s victory was a fluke, made possible by the introversion and collective observational failure of the rest of the jockeys, or whether he genuinely is a top-class racehorse. His breeding suggests that he may be the real deal. We will find out over time.