Robin Oakley

The Derby was a game of musical saddles

Adam Kirby’s victory on Adayar wrenched backwards the fickle finger of fortune

The Derby was a game of musical saddles
Adam Kirby rides Adayar to victory by four lengths in the Derby [Photo: John Walton-Pool/Getty Images]
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We all know it takes courage to win races over jumps, along with athleticism, stamina and speed. But you need courage to win on the Flat too and Adayar showed that in abundance winning this year’s Derby. The aerial shots show vividly the moment, two furlongs from the finish, when early leader Gear Up moved fractionally away from the rail. Jockey Adam Kirby, who had been tracking him all the way, saw his opportunity and asked Adayar to forge through the narrow gap. His brave mount responded and suddenly they were clear, going on to win by four lengths in a success that was truly popular with the racing community. His fellow jockeys all exited the weighing room to greet the winning rider with handshakes and hugs. In part that was because everybody likes Adam and respects him as a dedicated professional who faces a constant gruelling battle to keep down his weight. In part it was because he had wrenched backwards the fickle finger of fortune after losing the ride on John Leeper, a horse seen before the race as having a far superior chance to Adayar.

It all happened because the Irish maestro Aidan O’Brien, whose Snowfall had the day before won the Oaks by a record margin of 16 lengths under Frankie Dettori, had decided only days before the Derby that instead of coming mob-handed with a band of Coolmore’s expensive equine bluebloods as he often does for English Classics he would send only Bolshoi Ballet to Epsom this year. ‘Game over,’ most of us thought. ‘If Aidan is content with only one shot at a Derby that could give him a 41st Classic victory to take him past the 158-year-old record of John Scott, then he must be sure Bolshoi is a superstar.’ Bolshoi Ballet became the short-priced favourite and suddenly the jockeys lined up for Aidan’s other entrants became free. The released Frankie Dettori (who had been offered the ride earlier but was unable to take it) was engaged for John Leeper with Adam Kirby ‘jocked off’ and rueing his luck just days after enthusing publicly about his joy in having only his second Derby ride and one seemingly with a real chance. You wouldn’t have wanted to be around him just after the news, he admitted, but he chose to get better, not bitter and when old ally Charlie Appleby rapidly offered him the mount on Adayar, his stable’s No. 3 entry in the race, he gladly took it. Nobody can now dismiss Adam Kirby as ‘just an all-weather jockey’ and it is worth noting in passing that by taking the brave man’s route-saving space all the way around the inner, he defied the hoodoo that has seen no horse win the Derby from the No. 1 draw since 1999.

It must have pleased all concerned too, perhaps even Adayar, that Kirby has a pre-training facility, Vicarage Farm near Newmarket, at which he had given the Derby winner his introduction to the racing world. The well-bred John Leeper, incidentally, proved a little too immature for the Epsom test and finished ninth of 11, while the inexplicably lifeless Bolshoi Ballet was seventh. ‘I wouldn’t want to make any excuses,’ said Aidan O’Brien with typical grace, ‘as I don’t want to take away from the other horses.’ Equal grace was shown by Oisin Murphy, the final victim in the game of musical chairs, who was lined up for Adayar when Adam Kirby was to ride John Leeper. When Charlie Appleby phoned him to say Adayar would be Adam’s mount, the champion jockey’s response was: ‘I know what you’re going to say, Charlie, and I understand.’ Not only that: on Sporting Life on YouTube you can watch Oisin, who talks as well as he rides, give a brilliant commentary on the race and pay an immediate tribute to Adam Kirby. I shall cheer on Oisin’s future Derby victories with equal enthusiasm.

It is a joy of Derby week that we get to see playbacks of great races of the past. One I will never forget is the triumph of American Jockey Steve Cauthen on Slip Anchor in 1985 when, in his seven-length victory, the wonder kid’s utterly dependable ‘clock in the head’ enabled him to become the first jockey in 59 years to lead all the way and win. The latest of Michael Tanner’s always intriguing racing books, Steve Cauthen: English Odyssey (Racing Post, £19.99), tells the story of the only jockey to ride the winners of both the Derby at Epsom and the Kentucky Derby. The toe-in-the-irons American superstar adapted brilliantly to English tracks, but didn’t find English roads so easy and Michael quotes Steve, from my biography of Barry Hills, describing driving his trainer and mentor to Nottingham in Barry’s Merc. As he ducked and dived, pulling in and out behind trucks, Penny Hills beside him was looking nervous. In the back, Barry said nothing until they arrived. He then told his jockey succinctly: ‘I hope you give my horses a better ride than you’ve given me.’