As pubs, restaurants and other businesses opened their doors for the first time in more than three months following an ease in lockdown restrictions, it was a Derby day like no other at Epsom.
Gone was the funfair that usually fills up a large part of the infield at the iconic track, as was the row of open-topped busses that stretch along the far side rails up the home straight as far as the eye can see – and the marching band that sets the scene for the big day.
Most significantly for the first time since the inaugural running of the Group One prize in 1780 – staged a month later than usual this year – there were no spectators filling the stands or the infield, with just a limited number of accredited personnel dotted about the racecourse.
The backdrop may have been different and the volume closer to mute – but the man who has dominated the Classic picture at the Surrey track in recent years did it once again, as Serpentine provided Aidan O’Brien a record-breaking eighth success in the Investec Derby.
Adding to that bit of ‘normality’ was that O’Brien also won the Oaks, although of course even that was anything but normal in being run on the same day as the Derby.
Though not in attendance at a meeting he has marked out in his diary every year, O’Brien as ever played down his part in rewriting the history books with Serpentine, a son of the mighty Galileo who only broke his maiden tag at the Curragh seven days earlier.
He said: “We are so delighted. We are in a very privileged position to have such well-bred horses and to be working for such special people.
“It’s a position very few people will ever get into. Everyone puts their heart and soul into it day in day out, and we really appreciate every opportunity we get and how grateful we are to everyone for everything they do.
“In all those big races it is incredibly satisfying when they do win, because it is so difficult for it to happen. The road is so long and there are so many links in the chain all the way along from the time the mare is covered.
“We would have loved to have been there, but we are lucky to be racing. It’s a big difference, but everyone is connected very well on Zoom.
“It is great that racing is on and big credit to everyone for making it happen.”
Never one to be surprised by the performance of his runners whether they are a 1-2 shot or a 50-1 chance, O’Brien, though not predicting victory for Serpentine, expected his assured stamina to put him in with a chance.
O’Brien said: “Of ours, himself and Amhran Na Bhfiann (third) were the two that were going to get the trip very well. He was happy to go forward if no one else was and William (Buick) was happy to go forward if he was able so it was exactly the way it was.
“He won a maiden very impressively the last day when Wayne (Lordan) rode him and he absolutely ran through the line over a mile and a quarter at the Curragh and to do that you have to be very good and you have to have class and that’s what he did.”
While O’Brien is no stranger to dominating big races around the world it was undoubtedly a red-letter day for winning rider Emmet McNamara, who was celebrating his first victory since last October and one he knows will be well received back home.
McNamara, who went close in the Irish Derby aboard Tiger Moth, said: “It’s a bit surreal really, I can’t believe it. I hope my poor old dad (Eric, a trainer himself) isn’t after dying of a heart attack!
“He was extremely proud of me riding in the race today, having spoken to him about 40 times in the past 24 hours – he was on the phone about this, that and the other.
“He was obviously delighted I was taking part in it, and I am sure him and mum are even more proud of me now. I am sure all my family are roaring the house down.
“I couldn’t care less if there was no one here to be honest. It is unbelievable, a huge amount of thanks and gratitude to Aidan O’Brien and all his family – I have spent a fantastic six years there – and to all the owners who have shown a bit of faith in me today. I really appreciate it.”
In a year which has been anything but normal, the five-and-a-half-length front-running victory secured by the 25-1 winner should not have come as a surprise, and it was a result that while others may not have seen coming was one that McNamara believed he could achieve.
He added: “I had a huge amount of confidence in the horse having spoken to Aidan during the week. He filled me with confidence and said he is a horse that is going to stay a mile and six furlongs for you well.
“He said jump, go your own tempo, from halfway after you give him a breather from the six to the five, you keep building to that winning post, he will keep going. God, he was right!”
The same reaction may have been granted to Serpentine from the few hundred in attendance had 80,000 filled the stands. However, the same could not be said for Love, with the 11-10 favourite backing up her impressive 1000 Guineas with an equally stylish display to give O’Brien his eighth Investec Oaks.
O’Brien said of Ryan Moore-ridden winner: “This filly is very special – it’s very hard that you could ever have a better filly. You saw what she did in the Guineas – winning by three or four lengths – and she doubled it today.
“It’s only her second run of the year and it’s amazing really.”
With the likes of Taghrooda, Minding and the mighty Enable all going on to enjoy further Group One glory when mixing it with the colts in recent years following Oaks glory, O’Brien has high hopes the daughter of Galileo can do likewise as the season progresses.
He said: “The Irish Oaks (July 18) was a possibility, so we’ll see how she is over the next few days.
“I think you’d have to think about the Arc in the autumn – we know what three-year-old fillies can do in the Arc. I suppose it all depends how she comes out of today and whether she has a midsummer break now or takes another run and has a break after that.”
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