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 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 he was going too hard in front and had simply given him too much rope. By the time they realised he was not coming back to the field, it was much too late to do anything about it. A fluke, in other words. 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 past 103 years. Serpentine, relegated 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 hope. His winning time was just 0.37sec slower than that recorded by Love, the nine-length winner of the Oaks. Serpentine’s pedigree – he is by a Derby winner out of an Oaks runner-up – also gave him every right to be in the 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.
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 …
Friday’s best bets
Heavy ground at Haydock is a thorough test for any horse, and all the more so if the horse in question is a three-year-old carrying top weight against a field of seasoned handicappers. For that reason, Brentford Hope looks like a favourite to oppose and Markazi (2.48), at around 8-1, looks a decent bet to get the better of him.
Brentford Hope, to be fair, clearly has something about him, having won a Newmarket maiden in October by five lengths, despite being the only debutant in the field. But he has failed to add to that in three subsequent starts, was only third on his handicap debut off this mark of 91 last time and is taking a big drop back in trip.
David O’Meara’s Markazi is much more exposed, but put up his best performance of the campaign on heavy ground 13 days ago, has Jim Crowley booked to ride and arrives from a stable on a strong run of form.
12.20 Third Time Lucki
12.50 Wilde About Oscar
1.50 Eden Du Houx
3.53 On My Command
12.40 Avoir Star
1.10 Wrea Green
1.45 Commanche Falls
2.48 Markazi (nap)
3.18 First Greyed (nb)
3.48 Trumpet Man
1.35 Bit On The Side
2.10 Here Comes Johny
2.40 Young Wolf
3.10 Carys' Commodity
3.40 Princeton Royale
2.05 Samara Bay
2.35 Wots The Wifi Code
3.05 Inner Circle
4.35 Ben Lilly
5.05 Bad Rabbit
6.00 Blowing Wind
6.30 Mirage Mac
First Greyed (3.18) could be the one to back in one of the tighter five-runner races this year – the field is priced up from 9-4 to 6-1 – if the first-time blinkers see a return to the level of form he showed to win at Hamilton in July.
Elsewhere, Wots The Wifi Code (2.35) and Inner Circle (3.05) should both to well at Redcar, while Eden Du Houx (1.50), who was within eight lengths of recent winner McFabulous in a strong race in March, could make a successful debut over fences at Uttoxeter.