EPSOM – Instead of 100,000 people packing the rolling hills of Epsom Downs for Derby Day, the sound of swirling wind and rain filled the biosecure racing amphitheater on Saturday.
“I couldn’t hear anything around me,” winning jockey Emmet McNamara said. “All I could hear was the horse breathing.”
Not just because the coronavirus pandemic restricted access to what should be a social highlight of the English summer — for a race first staged in 1780 — to just a few hundred key personnel.
Without a winner since October, McNamara found himself so unexpectedly far out in front on Serpentine that no rivals could be heard. The 25-1 outsider that went out effectively as a pacemaker in the 241st running of the classic was never caught and produced an unlikely 5 1/2-length victory.
“That’s what makes it even more surreal — the empty stands and never seeing another horse,” McNamara said. “I think I am about to wake up from doing a piece of work on the gallops ... I can’t believe it.”
Neither could the bookmakers, who have felt the financial impact of sport being shut down in England for three months.
Big outsiders also placed, with Khalifa Sat taking second at 50-1 and Amhran Na Bhfiann third at 66-1 to complete a tricast that paid nearly 56,000 pounds ($70,000).
“It’s been a good day for the books,” Paddy Power spokesman Paul Binfield said.
What was not so unusual was Aidan O’Brien training a Derby winner. Serpentine produced a record eighth Derby triumph for the Irishman, who also had the winner of the Oaks in 11-10 favorite Love, who won by nine lengths. Two classics that should have been staged a day apart a month ago were instead squeezed into one afternoon as racing plays catch-up after the shutdown.
“We’re so delighted, but we’re in a privileged position to have such unbelievable horses and to work for and with such special people,” O’Brien said. “It’s a position very few people will ever get into."
Quarantine restrictions to prevent the spread of COVID-19 meant O’Brien chose to watch from Ireland rather than flying in to be at the course southwest of London.
Once McNamara returns to Ireland — after riding O’Brien-trained outsider Fort Myers in the French Derby at Chantilly on Sunday — he will have to spend 14 days in self-isolation.
“I told Aidan I wouldn’t mind 14 months in quarantine, never mind 14 days,” McNamara said. “I’m sure I’ll be OK in quarantine for 14 days, it will give me plenty of time to watch the replays.”
Also forced to watch on television was Queen Elizabeth II. For only the third time in her 68-year reign, the monarch did not attend the Derby.
Although pubs were allowed to reopen across England on Saturday for the first time since March, the government has given no indication when mass gatherings will be allowed again — even largely outdoor events like horse racing.
So the hill around the horseshoe-shaped expanse at Epsom was empty rather than being filled with fairground rounds and double-decker buses packed with racegoers.
In the grandstands there were no requirements this year for women to wear hats or fascinators or for men to turn out in black or grey morning dress featuring top hats and tails.
Some still maintained the sartorial standards. But paper coffee cups had to replace the champagne flutes with alcohol off limits.
Even for McNamara after an improbable victory on the most unusual of Derby days.
“There are a thousand other lads in the weighing room that are far more talented than me,” he said, "but they didn’t ride Serpentine in the Derby today.”
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