March 2, 2024

Serpentine too crafty as O’Brien, Galileo make Epsom Derby history

Serpentine wired the Derby to set a record for trainer Aidan O'Brien and sire Galileo (Epsom/Racenews)

Two legends – trainer Aidan O’Brien and supersire Galileo – fittingly made history together at Epsom Saturday as Serpentine upset the Derby (G1) in a front-running tour de force. O’Brien was celebrating a record eighth Derby winner, while his first, Galileo, is now the all-time most successful sire in Derby history with five to take the Blue Riband.

In a normal year with sufficient opportunities to run ahead of the classics, Serpentine might not have been overlooked at 25-1 at Epsom. But thanks to the compressed calendar due to COVID-19, the Coolmore blueblood had only just broken his maiden a week ago. Serpentine accordingly lacked the resume of most of his five Ballydoyle comrades, as well as the English-trained market leaders, 2000 Guineas (G1) winner Kameko and Lingfield Derby Trial hero English King. That wasn’t for lack of talent, just time.

Serpentine raced only once at two, winding up 10th behind Persia at Galway. After he resurfaced with a better fifth as the favorite at the Curragh June 12, O’Brien prescribed cheekpieces. The result was as devastating as it was immediate, and Serpentine wired a 1 1/4-mile maiden on Irish Derby Day by nine lengths.

While the performance stamped him as a proper 3-year-old, the chances of his repeating a similar coup a week later in the Derby appeared unlikely. Even if he hinted that he could have that kind of class – since another O’Brien maiden winner, Tiger Moth, nearly took the Irish Derby (G1) – the unique circumstances of Epsom figured to complicate the task. Most of all the possibility of a pace scenario that’s torched others in the past, e.g. Kew Gardens in 2018, made Serpentine look like a colt for the future rather than for Saturday.

Serpentine stepped up from a smashing maiden win (Epsom/Racenews)

But the future was now, in part thanks to a savvy piece of riding by Emmet McNamara aboard his very first Derby mount. Hustling Serpentine to the fore from post 12, McNamara proved an astute judge of the pace. Kameko’s stablemate Khalifa Sat chased initially but eased back, and once Serpentine was alone in front, McNamara nursed him along to perfection. The rest of the field was lulled into a false sense of security as Serpentine got both a breather and confidence with not a rival in earshot.

Galloping with verve around Tattenham Corner, Serpentine still had all the momentum entering the straight, and suddenly the picture became clear. No one was making a dent from behind. His nearest pursuers, Khalifa Sat and O’Brien’s maiden Amhran Na Bhfiann, were maintaining their positions, but favorite Kameko was struggling to improve in fourth, and English King wasn’t gaining enough traction. Ballydoyle’s fancy Russian Emperor was doing a bit better from far back than stablemates Mogul and Vatican City, yet they didn’t threaten to make the frame.

Serpentine crossed the wire 5 1/2 lengths clear, and his final time of 2:34.43 – not that far off stablemate Love’s stakes-record 2:34.06 in the Oaks (G1) – suggested this was not a petty theft. To be sure, the uncontested lead in his comfort zone was a gift, and pace pressure might have altered the result. But Serpentine was good enough to ration out his speed for the duration around Epsom.

The 50-1 Khalifa Sat held second by a half-length from the 66-1 Amhran Na Bhfiann. The all-longshot trifecta ($1) paid $29,882.90 according to

Kameko ran an even fourth in the blanket finish for the minors, shaping as if he didn’t quite stay the trip. That result adds to his parallels with Qatar Racing’s past star by Kitten’s Joy, Roaring Lion.

English King finished with interest another neck back in fifth, followed by Mogul, Russian Emperor, Vatican City, Gold Maze, Highland Chief, Pyledriver, Mohican Heights, Ballydoyle’s Mythical, Max Vega, Emissary, and the tailed-off Worthily.

McNamara cited Serpentine’s easy lead but credited O’Brien with the detailed instructions that worked to perfection.

“I think I got a little bit of a freebie! I had a huge amount of confidence in the horse having spoken to Aidan during the week. He filled me with confidence and said that he is a horse that is going to stay a mile and 6 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!

“He said that if things worked out well, he was one horse who could win the Derby. He instilled that into me and I actually did believe him, because when that man tells you something about a horse, if he tells you that the sky is green, you’d believe him.

“I couldn’t hear a thing all the way through the race. I never looked behind me, but I couldn’t hear a thing behind me. All I could hear was the horse breathing, and he was in a nice rhythm and I knew I wasn’t after going a million miles an hour, so I was imagining they were ignoring me a small bit. And I was just hoping that the clock in my own head was working a little bit, because I thought I had saved enough in the first half of the race going up the hill, I didn’t think I had gone mad, I thought I had enough to get home and thankfully I did.”

The record-setting O’Brien was full of praise for McNamara.

“Emmet gave him a brilliant ride. He judged the pace really well. He was a horse who was going to get every yard of the mile and a half.”

As ever, O’Brien’s extensive gratitude encompassed every conceivable member of the team.

“We are in a very privileged position to have such unbelievable horses and such unbelievably well-bred horses. We are working with special people. It is a position very few people will ever get into. The horses have such incredible pedigrees, top and bottom. There are so many special people involved and everyone puts their heart and soul into it day in, day out. Everyone loves what they do and we really appreciate every opportunity that we get and how grateful we are to everyone for what they do. It is just very special for us to be part of such a special team of people.”

Paul Smith, son of co-owner Derrick Smith, was effusive after Serpentine joined stablemate Love – another Galileo – on the classic podium.

“Incredible isn’t it? Those Galileos – they never know when to lie down! Absolutely incredible.

“Aidan really is a genius. It’s a word that has been used before, but we know he is. He gets his horses so right and works with the pedigrees so well.

“When you have Galileo and you have Aidan, anything is possible! It really is! Aidan knew he would stay well, we knew that, they let him go and he just ran for fun.

“I am so pleased for Emmet McNamara – he is a big part of the team back at Ballydoyle. He got chinned in the Irish Derby a week or so back (aboard Tiger Moth). He works so hard for us. No disrespect to the other jockeys, but I am delighted for him.”

Galileo emulated his own sire, Sadler’s Wells, by furnishing the Oaks/Derby double. Sadler’s Wells’ dynamic duo in 2001 were Galileo and stablemate Imagine. O’Brien achieved the same double again in 2012 with Camelot and Was.

Rounding out O’Brien’s Derby honor roll are the Sadler’s Wells son High Chaparral (2002); three more Galileos in Ruler of the World (2013), Australia (2014), and Anthony Van Dyck (2019); and the 40-1 Wings of Eagles (2017) by Pour Moi. Galileo’s only Derby winner not trained by O’Brien was Jim Bolger’s New Approach (2008).

O’Brien’s eighth Derby moved him past the illustrious horsemen with seven winners – Robert Robson in the late 18th/early 19th century, John Porter in the second half of the 19th century, and Fred Darling who spanned 1922-41.

Serpentine savored Epsom classic success that had eluded his dam, Remember When, who placed in the 2010 Oaks, and her three-quarter brother Dylan Thomas, a near-miss third in the 2006 Derby. If Serpentine can improve as much in time as his “uncle” Dylan, Europe’s 2007 Horse of the Year after a career-crowning victory in the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe (G1), we’re in for a treat.