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. The final 3 furlongs to the winning post are actually on the side of a hill, which is not shown to any accuracy on TV angles.
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 off of the final corner.
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.
In 1985, Steve Cauthen led for the entire race on Slip Anchor, and, in an enterprising Cauthen way, pushed Slip Anchor further into the lead 5 furlongs out, after noticing that Petoski, who was leading the chasing pack, was starting to tire. Slip Anchor stayed in the lead all the way to the finish line, extending his advantage in the closing 2 furlongs. At the time, Cauthen was convinced that Slip Anchor might just be the best horse he had ever ridden, but unfortunately he had an accident in his stall and was never the same horse on track afterwards.
Yesterday at Epsom, we had a repeat of the 1974 and 1985 races, 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.
UPDATE 1 – Steve Cauthen, in an interview, pointed out the similarities between his win on Slip Anchor and the win of Serpentine. As he says, if you have a horse that handles the curves and undulations, and who likes to run freely, it is possible to lead from the front a long way out and challenge the rest of the field to catch you.
UPDATE 2 – At time of writing Serpentine looks like a fluke winner of the Derby, having done little of note since he won the race. He has been sold out of Aidan O’Brien’s yard to an Australian breeder and has a new trainer in Ireland.
UPDATE 3 – In an event that is almost unheard of, Serpentine was moved to Australia, and has been gelded. No Epsom Derby winner in the last 122 years has suffered that fate. The new owners explained it as a “racing decision”. Nevertheless, this outcome is a rare one for an English classic winner.
It may be due to simple over-supply. Serpentine’s sire Galileo, who died at the age of 23 in 2021, was a popular and fertile stallion, siring upwards of 230 Group race winners. (In his early stud career, he was a shuttle stallion, but after a while he stood exclusively in Ireland). There are simply way too many male descendants of Galileo currently at stud for a moderate, possibly fluke Epsom Derby winner to make any impression in the market. Despite his impeccable breeding, it was likely that Serpentine did not have any commercial value as a stallion, given his undistinguished record before and after his shock win at Epsom. The owners probably concluded that he had more value as a gelded stayer. (Prince of Penzance, a shock winner of the 2015 Melbourne Cup, was an 8 year old gelding at the time).