Robin Oakley

How modesty triumphed in the Derby

How modesty triumphed in the Derby
Derby winner Richard Kingscote who was entrusted with the ride on Desert Crown in only his second Derby. [Alan Crowhurst/Getty Images]
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In the absence on her Platinum Jubilee of Her Majesty, such an avid Derby attender in the past, and following the death just days before of the legendary Lester Piggott, it could have been a low-key, insignificant Derby. Instead, a truly impressive victory for the favourite, Desert Crown, turned it into a different kind of celebration.

He had never really been away, but how the crowd welcomed the comeback when Desert Crown won Sir Michael Stoute his sixth Derby, becoming at 76 the oldest to perform the feat. The previous holder of the record was the 75-year-old Matt Dawson with Sir Visto in 1895, but in those days there were no Coolmores and Godolphins to face with their batteries of expensive, impeccably bred contestants. Had Sir Michael begun to fear that his victory in the great race with Workforce in 2010 would turn out to be his last? ‘I didn’t know. You realise as time goes by that your chances lessen. I didn’t sit down and think about it year after year but it has been a lot of years.’

We tend to see Aidan O’Brien as the Derby genius with eight victories already to his name, but he has had 95 horses run in the race. Sir Michael hadn’t had a single contestant for six years and his six victories have come from just 38 runners, double the Irish maestro’s strike rate. But racing isn’t just about the numbers; it is, too, about the emotion, about character and respect for those who have the patience needed to turn the good into the best.

Sir Michael is a modest, sometimes shy man with no great taste for the spotlight, who has to be coaxed to deliver more than a sentence or two on his latest success, but I suspect he has come to enjoy his enforced meetings with the media rather more than he lets on. As we clustered around the great man in the winners’ enclosure like schoolboys competing for the favour of a popular if slightly gruff master, he was asked to tell us more about the horse who had just won the world’s most famous race with a dominant injection of pace by two furlongs. He replied: ‘He’s brimful of promise’, asking with a twinkle if that would do. But then there was more: ‘He’s a good athlete and he just floated down the hill.’

Being a successful trainer requires judgment of men as well as horses and Sir Michael, who has had superstars ride his horses in past years, has taken up lately with jockey Richard Kingscote who was entrusted with the ride on Desert Crown in only his second Derby. After a copybook triumph he acknowledged: ‘I’m not a champion jockey. I’m not Ryan Moore. I’ve had a good career but I’ve not had a stellar career. I think it takes a lot for them [trainer and owner] not to look elsewhere.’

Such realism deserves reward. If it was a happy Epsom meeting for the crowds back for the first time in three years, it was a painful one for this column’s Twelve to Follow. There are ‘we wuz robbed’ excuses and there are genuine hard luck stories and the two biggest hard luck stories at the Derby meeting both involved our Twelve. Emily Upjohn, the gorgeous Sea the Stars filly trained by John and Thady Gosden, was the first name on my list this year and her earlier successes saw her start as the favourite in The Oaks. The plan was for her to run prominently in the first three or four but alas as they came out of the starting stalls with Frankie Dettori on board Emily Upjohn stumbled and nearly fell.

Frankie was left last of the whole field. He persevered and to the surprise of most observers had the filly back on terms to such a degree that at the end of the race Emily Upjohn was beaten by only a nose in a photo finish by Aidan O’Brien’s Tuesday, who thereby gave Aidan an astonishing record 41st success in a British Classic. Said Frankie: ‘I had to go round them all. Bless her, she took me there in great style but the damage was done’, and the most significant comment on the Oaks result was that it was Emily Upjohn, not Tuesday, who was immediately made favourite for this autumn’s Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe which John Gosden so memorably won twice with Enable.

Another of our Twelve was Ralph Beckett’s Westover, who started the Derby as a 25-1 outsider. Coming into the straight, nothing was going better and jockey Rob Hornby saw a gap through which to launch his challenge. Unfortunately, as he put it: ‘The gap closed faster than I could get into it.’ The traffic problems continued but when they finally saw daylight they flew home faster than any to finish third. When I spoke to Ralph afterwards, the immediate target was the Irish Derby followed by the St Leger. Alas if he goes for either it won’t be as a 25-1 outsider.