Wings Of Eagles' Derby win: shock, fluke or fine performance?

So an Investec Derby that looked unfathomable beforehand yielded a result that was, well, err, unfathomable.

Wednesday, 7th June 2017, 7:29 pm
Updated Thursday, 8th June 2017, 3:30 pm
Master trainer Aidan O'Brien, who saddled another Investec Derby winner at Epsom -- but not with a fancied horse.

WINGS OF EAGLES, the fifth string of Aidan O’Brien’s battalion of six runners, swooped late and fast at odds of 40/1 to land the £1.625 million Classic at Epsom Downs.

In doing so, he emulated his sire, Pour Moi, who won the race in very similar fashion in 2011. In doing so, with telling irony after the BHA had prevented apprentice Gina Mangan from taking part, mainly because of her inexperience, he provided glory for a jockey, Padraig Beggy, who had ridden only two winners on Turf in the last five years.

But more pertinently, in winning the historic contest, Wings Of Eagles reversed previous form with no fewer than five of his rivals on Saturday. He had been put in his place by PERMIAN in the Zetland Stakes at Newmarket last October, hammered by BEST SOLUTION, CAPRI and DOUGLAS MACARTHUR in the Group One Criterium de Saint-Cloud on their final 2yo starts and then beaten by VENICE BEACH in the Chester Vase last month.

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The initial reaction of O’Brien told all. “I don’t know what happened there!” he laughed, as if, like most of us watching, he couldn’t quite believe what had unfolded.

So how did it happen? Why did Wings Of Eagles suddenly live up to his name on the biggest stage? My first theory was that an over-strong gallop collapsed, enabling finishers from rear to pick up the pieces. That is given credence by the fact that two of the other first five, CLIFFS OF MOHER and BENBATL, also came from way back. It would seem that Wings Of Eagles simply summoned the greater reserves of stamina at the end of a gruelling renewal for a fluke outcome unlikely to be repeated.

But having watched the race again two or three times, and also reviewed the colt’s performance at Chester, I’m not so sure. Instead I think he deserves a bit more credit.

Chester was his seasonal re-appearance, from which all O’Brien horses progress. Yet he ran a perfectly sound race, despite not appearing to handle the tight turns and despite being forced wide into the straight. Once straightened up and able to gallop properly, he finished with gusto and as someone who fancied the winner, Venice Beach, at Epsom, I should have paid more attention to Wings Of Eagles.

At Epsom, he clearly had come on for the run and clearly had learned plenty too. He met with interference when first launching his challenge 2f out, yet once switched wider, he unleashed a relentless burst and even visibly quickened deep inside the final furlong to mow down the front three.

Wings Of Eagles is also an imposing specimen of a horse, one of the real pre-race eyecatchers in the paddock, tall, strong and scopy, and taking everything into account, I think he deserves respect. I certainly wouldn’t be in a rush to oppose him in the Irish Derby on a track at The Curragh sure to suit. Of his likely opponents, I would marginally prefer WALDGEIST to the Epsom third, CRACKSMAN. John Gosden’s inexperienced charge, whose long stride did not appear suited to the downhill stretch of most of Epsom’s straight, will win more races. But Andre Fabre’s colt, who won that aforementioned Saint-Cloud race last autumn, ran a cracker in Sunday’s French Derby and surely should have taken his chance on the Downs.

With regard to Cliffs Of Moher and Benbatl, they were the two, in my view, to take from the race alongside the winner. In a week of upheaval for the Godolphin team after the departure of chief executive John Ferguson, they must have been delighted by the performance of the latter, a colt who only made his racecourse debut on April 2. Presumably as part of a plan to encourage him to settle better than before, particularly over a longer trip, he raced way off the pace and yet finished with a rare flourish. It would not be a surprise to see Benbatl drop back to 10f and possibly tackle a race like the Coral-Eclipse, which is also the reported target for Cliffs Of Moher.

As the choice of Ryan Moore, the Galileo colt was openly the number one hope of the Ballydoyle operation. Indeed winning rider Beggy admitted afterwards that his chief tactic, by slipstreaming Moore in rear, was to “follow the best horse in the race”, ostensibly to grab some late placed prize money. Moore’s own ride has not been given enough praise because it cannot have been easy to switch off a horse who was on the brink of boiling over beforehand. Fractious and edgy in the parade ring, Cliffs Of Moher also sweated buckets, albeit on a warm day. The colt quickened up in terrific style before the slight lack of requisite stamina on the dam’s side of his pedigree probably caught up with him in the final, decisive strides. The switch to 10f for the Eclipse would make sense.

O’Brien poignantly points out that it took time for Cliffs Of Moher to come to himself this spring, making it a rush to even get him to Epsom, so there is certain to be lots more to come from him in top-class races.

That Aidan Patrick O’Brien is the right man to extract that improvement cannot be in any doubt after another Classic weekend in which he advertised his extraordinary skills. His stranglehold on the Classics speaks for itself, but two other, less obvious, attributes also manifested themselves during the wonderful Epsom meeting. First, his sportsmanship and his deference to the sport. Many trainers would have thrown a huge sulk and pulled out their horses after the rigmarole O’Brien’s star-studded squad went through on Oaks Day on Friday when their flight from Ireland was delayed and arrived with little time to spare. Not O’Brien. He ran them all, recognising how their absences would have detracted from the day, making no excuses if they were beaten, as in the case of Oaks favourite RHODODENDRON, nor claiming any extra credit if they won, as in the case of Coronation Cup hero HIGHLAND REEL.

The second attribute worthy of acknowledgement concerns his treatment of Beggy. Here was a man whose career was on the rocks when the book was deservedly thrown at him by the Australian authorities in 2014. Not only did he snort cocaine at a barbecue three nights before a big race, he then lied about the offence, claiming the drug originated either from an anaesthetic used by his dentist or from the ingestion of coca leaves supplied by a friend. Yet when Beggy returned to Ireland, O’Brien was magnanimous enough to offer him work and a route back to credibility. Now, on Beggy’s CV, alongside his transgressions Down Under, sits an Epsom Derby.

Against this backdrop, it is incredible, bordering on scandalous, that whispering cliques within certain racing circles still refuse to embrace the O’Brien phenomenon. Conspiracy theorists remain convinced that whenever he fields multiple runners in the big races, he deploys a devious tactical masterplan. The evidence of Epsom, where all his Classic horses ran on their individual merits, surely nailed such a myth once and for all because the kind of ferocious gallop his representatives set in both the Derby and Oaks was hardly conducive to the chances of their leading fancies. O’Brien himself expressed pre-race stamina doubts about Cliffs Of Moher, while Rhododendron was palpably outstayed by ENABLE.

Rubbing shoulders with the conspiracy theorists are the jealousy brigade who try to convince us that the success the yard enjoys is damaging the sport by cooling the interest of punters and racegoers. Forgive me for asking, but remind me when an army of militant punters and racegoers last marched on BHA HQ and demanded that O’Brien be locked up and that Pattern prizes be shared around a bigger variety of trainers and owners? Instead, the manner in which O’Brien and his Coolmore patriarchs, Messrs Magnier, Tabor and Smith, have helped, over the last ten to 15 years, to uphold and enrich the reputation and high standards of big races that have been showing signs of flagging, such as the Classics at Epsom, is being applauded from the rooftops.