Is this year’s Derby winner good, bad or indifferent? Three-and-a-half months after a Classic at Epsom – which was every bit as strange as the times – no-one is any the wiser, but it is a question that could finally have an answer this weekend after Serpentine was confirmed as one of 11 runners in the Qipco Champion Stakes at Ascot on Saturday.
The bare facts of Serpentine’s five-and-a-half length romp at Epsom in early July suggest are beyond dispute. His winning margin was the widest since Workforce took his field apart by seven lengths in 2010 and that, in turn, was the widest since Shergar’s record-breaking 10-length success in 1981.
Everything else about this year’s Derby, though, is still up for debate. It was a suitably bizarre spectacle for an empty, barricaded racecourse as Emmet McNamara set off at a decent pace on Serpentine, went clear with a mile still to run, rounded Tattenham Corner a dozen lengths to the good and then crossed the line with the best of his 15 opponents still trying forlornly to close the gap.
The immediate reaction of many observers was that McNamara’s rivals had assumed that he was going too hard in front and had simply given him too much rope. By the time they realised that he was not coming back to the field, it was much too late to do anything about it.
A fluke, in other words, gifting the spoils – and a place on the sport’s most illustrious roll of honour – to a horse that just got lucky. A solid but unspectacular fourth place in Serpentine’s only race since – the Group One Grand Prix de Paris in September – did little to dispel the doubts.
But it will be much more difficult to dismiss Serpentine if he can become only the sixth colt to win the Derby and the Champion Stakes in the same season since the latter race was first run in 1877. Just two – Sir Ivor (1968) and New Approach (2008) – have completed the double in the last 103 years. Serpentine, relegated to double-figure odds in the betting at around 12-1, has a point to prove and a high-profile stage on which to do it.
There are certainly aspects of Serpentine’s Derby form that should give his backers cause for hope. His winning time was just 0.37sec slower than that recorded by Love, the nine-length winner of the Oaks earlier in the afternoon, and no-one has ever suggested that she is a sub-standard Classic winner.
Serpentine’s pedigree – he is by a Derby winner out of an Oaks runner-up – also gave him every right to be in the Classic field. It could just be that a 12-furlong trip and forcing tactics got the very best out of an impeccably-bred colt who was, after all, seeing a racecourse for only the fourth time in his life.
Serpentine returns to 10 furlongs on Saturday – the trip over which he won a maiden at the Curragh by nine lengths just a week before his victory at Epsom – but the going at Ascot will make it a serious test. And that will, in turn, make life more difficult for William Buick’s opponents if – or more probably, when – he sets out to repeat McNamara’s front-running tactics on Serpentine.
Frankie Dettori, who rides Mishriff, Ryan Moore (Magical), James Doyle (Lord North), Andrea Atzeni (San Donato) were all aboard also-rans at Epsom in July and probably have weighed in afterwards wondering how they contrived to hand McNamara a “freebie” in front. It is not a sensation, or outcome, that they will be eager to risk again. Buick, meanwhile, was on the 100-1 shot Amhran Na Bhfiann in the Derby, and finished third after sticking much closer to Serpentine than most of his rivals.
It promises to add a fascinating tactical dimension to Saturday’s race. Can they afford to let Serpentine go off in front again, and if so, how far? Fool me once, as the saying goes, then shame on you. Fool me twice …