Pacemaker debate sets hearts racing after Serpentine's Derby win


London (AFP)

The silence that greeted Emmet McNamara and shock winner Serpentine from the few able to attend the Epsom Derby reflected the surreal atmosphere conjured up by the coronavirus pandemic.

The surprise was not that trainer Aidan O'Brien had won a record eighth Derby but the manner in which one of the least fancied of his six runners triumphed.

Pacemakers are usually fodder swallowed up at the business end of the race -- the two fillies who had at one point a 12-length lead in Saturday's Oaks ended up in fifth and last place in the eight-horse race.

O'Brien's habit of running several in big races, especially the Derby, has drawn murmurings of discontent from his rivals who say they run as a team.

With less ammunition it is impossible for them to cover all of his runners.

However, it also means his pacemakers should never be taken for granted.

They seriously underestimated Serpentine on Saturday.

"One of these pacemakers getting away was always going to happen one of these days," said former jockey Fran Berry.

"It was clear from four furlongs (800 metres) out Serpentine was gone beyond recall if he kept going.

"This will need a good bit of watching back and it's going to create a lot of debate."

O'Brien would contradict that.

"We try to give every horse the best chance of winning and we try to ride them all accordingly," said O'Brien.

"Emmet was very happy to go forward and William (Buick, on Amhran Na Bhfiann -- finished third at 66/1) was happy to go forward too."

- 'I've been saving myself' -

McNamara's CV would not have struck fear into the hearts of Frankie Dettori or champion jockey Oisin Murphy on the two market favourites, English King and Kameko respectively.

The 30-year-old's last win dated back to October 2019 -- though he finished second in the Irish Derby last Saturday -- and was riding in only his ninth race this season.

The jockeys on the main contenders would have had their eyes on O'Brien's first choice jockey Ryan Moore who chose Mogul.

They would have been wiser not to as the Englishman had chosen the wrong horse for the last two of the Irish trainer's Derby wins.

McNamara's surprise elevation to the pantheon of Derby winning jockey resembles that of Padraig Beggy.

Beggy had ridden just three winners in two-and-a-half years before he won on O'Brien's 40/1 outsider Wings of Eagles in 2017.

"I got a bit of a freebie out there," said McNamara.

"That's what makes it feel even more surreal -– the empty stands, didn't hear a horse."

McNamara had a disarming explanation for why he had not visited the winner's enclosure for such a long time.

"I've been saving myself," said McNamara.

"Things are very tough in Ireland in terms of getting rides."

McNamara, who will hope lightning strikes twice as he rides another O'Brien outsider Fort Myers in Sunday's French Derby, says the Irish trainer has the ability to instil belief.

"I didn't expect to be sitting here," said McNamara.

"The only thing I would say in that regard is that Aidan O'Brien filled me with a huge amount of confidence, so it's not a complete surprise.

"When that man tells you something about a horse, if he tells you that the sky is green, you'd believe him."

There was still an air of disbelief about the result although it may simply be the horses behind were not good enough.

Buick, delighted at finishing third, perhaps summed up the aftermath of the race best.

"Why is it so quiet around here?"