June 8, 2023

Eagles over the Cliffs: biggest upset in Epsom Derby in 43 years

Wings of Eagles swooped fast and late reminiscent of Derby-winning sire Pour Moi (Photo courtesy of Andy Watts/RacingFotos.com via Epsom Facebook)

A 40-1 chance, ridden by a little-known jockey with only three winners over the past two years, sprang the biggest boilover in the last four decades of the Epsom Derby (G1).

That’s one way to describe Saturday’s upstart Wings of Eagles and Padraig Beggy, who delivered an impeccably timed move in his first Derby ride. But put another way, it’s not entirely a sentimental tale, for Wings of Eagles was actually an overlooked member of the formidable Coolmore team trained by Aidan O’Brien.

Their top chance was supposed to be Cliffs of Moher, chosen by ace rider Ryan Moore, who went off at 5-1. Wings of Eagles smacked of a leftover pickup mount for Beggy, more often an exercise rider on the Ballydoyle gallops than seen riding in the afternoon.

Yet in the final yards, the unheralded Wings of Eagles unleashed a dizzying charge to deny Cliffs of Moher by three-quarters of a length. O’Brien came up with his sixth Epsom Derby hero, and the exacta, in a way that only a few visionaries might have foreseen.

John Gosden’s Cracksman, ultimately the favorite at 7-2, was another neck away in third, with the 5-1 Eminent part of the blanket finish in fourth.

Wings of Eagles evoked shades of his sire, Pour Moi, the 2011 Derby winner thanks to a similarly electric burst nearing the line. Pour Moi was himself steered by a first-time Epsom Derby jockey in Mickael Barzaloa. The main difference between father and son was that Pour Moi, an Andre Fabre trainee, was among the leading fancies in his year. Not one of Coolmore’s more successful stallions, Pour Moi now stands under the National Hunt banner. Might the son of Montjeu have earned another chance at siring Flat horses?

Wings of Eagles’ juvenile form didn’t stamp him as Derby-winning material. Seventh on debut at Galway, he sought a softer spot at Killarney and broke his maiden, but even there he was only second choice. Wings of Eagles hasn’t been well supported in the market in any of his other races. A 10-1 shot in the Zetland at Newmarket last October, he was a troubled fourth behind the filly Coronet (fifth in Friday’s Oaks [G1]), Cunco, and Derby rival Permian. Wings of Eagles concluded the season with a ninth to Waldgeist at odds of 33-1 in the Criterium de Saint-Cloud (G1), where Derby foes Best Solution, Capri, and Douglas Macarthur filled the minor placings.

The turning point came in the May 11 Chester Vase (G3). Despite an unfavorable pace set-up, Wings of Eagles finished well for second to better-fancied stablemate Venice Beach. He also raced with his head cocked to the right, though, indicating that maybe he wasn’t the easiest partner.

His Vase jockey, Seamie Hefferman, took the reins aboard Capri instead in the Derby. Venice Beach picked up Donnacha O’Brien, Douglas Macarthur got Colm O’Donoghue, 66-1 longshot The Anvil was handed to Ana O’Brien, and Wings of Eagles, ostensibly almost as far down the depth chart, teamed up with Beggy. However it came about, it was a match made in heaven.

“Padraig gave the horse a brilliant ride,” O’Brien said afterward. “He saw him in all his work as Padraig rides work with Donnacha – they are partners so they would have seen all the work Wings of Eagles did even if he didn’t ride him every day.

“Padraig is a world-class rider. He has been with us a good while now and we really appreciate his work day in, day out every morning and obviously when we discussed what jockeys were riding in the Investec Derby, there was no question that Padraig wouldn’t ride.”

Beggy gave Wings of Eagles his ideal trip, anchoring him at the rear in preparation for one run. He was assisted by a swift early pace courtesy of Douglas Macarthur and his sidekick The Anvil. The Ballydoyle pacemakers opened up on the field, making for a test of stamina with nowhere to hide.

Douglas Macarthur maintained his momentum for a long way in the straight, before Cracksman finally emerged to overtake him. But Cliffs of Moher accosted the new leader at virtually the same time, and for a few strides, Moore appeared to have nicked it.

Then wider out, Wings of Eagles was sprouting wings. Beggy had some maneuvering to do with nearly the entire field in front of him. After momentarily steadying as Dubai Thunder drifted out, he guided Wings of Eagles into the clear, only a couple of lengths behind the surging Cliffs of Moher. His stablemate flattened out a bit once striking the front, but Wings of Eagles was just taking flight, and he flew over the top to complete 1 1/2 miles in 2:33.02.

“I was waiting for Ryan to get a split,” Beggy said, “so I knew that when Ryan got a split, I could go with him. I knew I was going to pass most of the field but I didn’t think I was going to pass them all like I did but I knew I was going to finish.

“Two furlongs out, I thought I was in with a chance, one furlong down, I knew I was going to win because of the momentum I had picked up and got. I won a shade cozily in the end but look it was a great feeling and up the straight, you are passing horses at a lot of speed so it was great.”

Beggy didn’t worry about Wings of Eagles’ odds, which made him the highest priced Derby winner since the 50-1 Snow Knight in 1974.

“The main thing is that you are riding for Aidan O’Brien in colors like these – you don’t worry about the price because they always have a chance. It doesn’t matter what the pecking order is when you’re riding for Aidan O’Brien as they’re all good horses and they all have a chance.

“I knew I was riding a fine big colt who was coming here in good form. All six of those horses were trained by Aidan O’Brien for the Derby. It doesn’t matter if one was 4-1 or 33-1, he has trained them to come here to run the race of their life.

“I’ve rode for a lot of trainers but Aidan looks at a horse in a different way to everybody else. He is there night, noon and morning, he looks at them head to toe.”

Beggy, whose promising stint in Australia was ended by a cocaine positive, credited O’Brien for getting him back into the game.

“I got into a little bit of trouble in Australia – it was a little mistake and look, I was knocked down and I had to come back fighting and I have proved that today so I am very happy. I gave a positive test for cocaine, I had to pick myself back up there and I had either had to get back riding there or come back to Ireland and I decided to come home as I had done well in Ireland, not in Pattern races, but I had done well.

“I got into Ballydoyle and Aidan had a chat with me and said if I keep working, that someday we will repay you and there you go! I don’t think he meant the Derby!

“It means the world to me. I’ve rode winners but not big classic winners and I thought those type of horses had gone by me until Aidan started to give me these sort of rides.”

O’Brien repaid the compliment, describing Beggy as “strong with a great mind, tactically very aware. I can’t tell you how delighted we are to have him working with us and having him there on those big days.

Wings of Eagles denied Cliffs of Moher (center) and Cracksman (right) (Photo courtesy Andy Watts/RacingFotos.com via Epsom Facebook)

“Padraig was always going to take his time and he gave the horse a brilliant ride. He had the horse nice and balanced and was in a great position coming down the hill.

“When Ryan was getting to the front (on Cliffs of Moher), we could see Padraig was staying and we thought his horse would get a bit further than a mile and a half.”

Cliffs of Moher remains the apple of his trainer’s eye, however.

“I am delighted with Cliffs of Moher, who was just a little bit of a baby,” O’Brien said. “He just got there and got a little bit tired, so his next run will be something to look forward to. He came with a sustained run but his lack of preparation just showed in the last 50 yards.

“The runner-up only just made it here. He needed a bit of time to get him there in spring so it was a rush to have him ready. I’d imagine Cliffs of Moher is the one with most improvement in him. He was just a baby coming here and Ryan had to mind him. He’s one to look forward to next season.

“You never really know going into this race,” O’Brien added of the surprise result. “They are all bred for it, and until you test them on this course over a mile and a half you don’t know how they will do – anything can happen.”

Two of the Coolmore partners, Derrick Smith (whose colors Wings of Eagles sported) and Michael Tabor, sounded the same theme.

“Ryan picked Cliffs of Moher but all six horses went there with a big chance,” Smith said. “They all finished close together in the trials and that was just the way it was. We couldn’t really identify who was our second, third and fourth best; they all had an equal chance in our eyes.”

“The way I felt personally this morning,” Tabor said, “was that it was a very open race and any horse could come forward, as three-year-olds do, to win and we knew Wings Of Eagles was in the mix – but no more than that. He’s proved to be a very, very good horse for the future.

“I’m afraid I didn’t back him though – I didn’t have a bet in the race. Aidan’s done it again – it’s just incredible. A friend of mine this morning said the bet was actually Aidan to win the race at 7-4. I didn’t take his advice though!”

Cracksman’s connections also believe there’s more to come from the near-miss third, who was making only his third career start.

“He is a bit raw and immature,” jockey Frankie Dettori said. “He was on and off the bridle but came home good.”

“I think Frankie found that the horse was still a bit immature mentally about the whole thing,” Gosden noted. “A couple of times, Frankie had to galvanize him, particularly at the top of the hill – you could see his elbows moving a little, it was even picked up by the commentator.

“He was running a bit babyishly – maybe he could have done with that other race beforehand – but he has run a grand race, he was just caught out for experience and wasn’t beaten far.

“There are obviously a solid, even bunch of colts and we’d be happy for a rematch. Cracksman is in the Irish Derby (G1) and it wouldn’t bother me going there at all, it is a nice galloping track and it would suit him.”

Eminent, a close fourth despite not being totally in love with the course, could also try again at the Curragh.

“I think he was just squeezed out in the closing stages, and he didn’t travel too well to start with,” trainer Martyn Meade said. “It took him a little time early on to get into his rhythm and to get into a position as they came around the top of the hill.

“Jim (Crowley) immediately got off him and said the Irish Derby. He certainly stays, I don’t think there is any question about that. We just didn’t get that bit of luck in running, it didn’t really work out as we’d like today, but we are thrilled to bits with him – it is only his fourth run and we’ve lots of excitement to come, I hope.”

Godolphin’s Benbatl, last of all at the top of the stretch, worked his way home in a pleasing fifth. Capri was sixth on ground that was riding a bit quick for his taste, and Douglas Macarthur should get a medal for his seventh considering his pace exertions. Best Solution, Glencadam Glory, Permian, Dubai Thunder, Venice Beach, the badly hampered Salouen, Khalidi, Crowned Eagle, Rekindling, The Anvil, and Pealer rounded out the order of finish.

Controversial entrant Diore Lia, a poor maiden whose odds varied from 500-1 to 1000-1 with bookmakers, was withdrawn reportedly due to a pulled muscle.

Wings of Eagles was bred in France by Aliette Forein and Gilles Forein and sold for €220,000 (approximately $244,420) as an Arqana August yearling. His dam, the Kendor mare Ysoldina, amassed seven stakes placings, chief among them the 2005 French 1000 Guineas (G1). She has produced two stakes-placed fillies, Torentosa and Gyrella.

Ysoldina is herself a half-sister to multiple Scandinavian champion Appel au Maitre; French Group 1 vixen Belle et Celebre; Italian co-highweight Whortleberry; and multiple Group 3 scorer Valentino.

Wings of Eagles’ fifth dam, Rosetta II, was Germany’s champion three-year-old filly of 1968. This is a branch of the female line founded by the legendary Pretty Polly.

According to Sally Duckett, Wings of Eagles became the first French-bred in more than a half-century to prevail in the Blue Riband. The last one was an all-time great: