It used to be said that a trainer who felt there were several potential Derby winners in the stable did not in truth have even one. But not any more. Aidan O’Brien once sent eight horses to the Classic and left Epsom empty-handed but his six-strong team on Saturday produced a 40-1 winner in Wings Of Eagles, a colt with just a handful of backers among the countless thousands crammed on to the Downs.
The victory of Wings Of Eagles was the biggest surprise in the Derby since Snow Knight’s success at 50-1 in 1974, and the first for a horse at a double-figure price since High-Rise at 20-1 in 1998. On the day, however, there was no fluke about it, and while Wings Of Eagles and Padraig Beggy hit the front only a few strides from the line, they won a shade cosily in the end.
There were echoes of Pour Moi’s charge through the field to victory in 2011 as his son Wings Of Eagles passed horse after horse in the Epsom straight, building momentum all the time and closing steadily on the leaders. Two furlongs out, though, most eyes were glued to his stable companion, Cliffs Of Moher, and O’Brien’s principal jockey Ryan Moore, as they glided past market rival Cracksman and into a useful lead.
The stage was set for Cliffs Of Moher to stride clear but he simply stayed on without quickening as the race reached its climax, as Wings Of Eagles and Beggy chased them down and claimed victory by three-quarters of a length.
Before the race, some might have questioned O’Brien’s apparent wish to run almost every three-year-old colt with a pulse in Saturday’s Classic. A few minutes later, the wisdom of covering every possible base was unarguable, as Wings Of Eagles fulfilled the promise in his pedigree, which has the family of the 1995 Derby winner Lammtarra on his dam’s side to complement Pour Moi.
This was O’Brien’s fourth Derby success in the last six years and his sixth in all, one more than Sir Michael Stoute’s (current) total of five between 1981 and 2010, and just one behind the all-time record of seven wins in the Classic. All three of the trainers to saddle seven winners – Robert Robson, John Porter and Fred Darling – were active in a much less competitive era, and sent out their final Derby winners in 1823, 1899 and 1941 respectively. O’Brien, though, is closing in and seems sure to catch and pass them all before too many more seasons are out.
The trainer made it clear that Wings Of Eagles had been seen as a possible winner beforehand, despite his starting price and a defeat at the hands of Venice Beach, who finished 12th, on his previous start at Chester. That said, he may still suspect that Cliffs Of Moher will prove to be a better horse in the long term.
“He was working very well and we were delighted with him at Chester,” O’Brien said. “Padraig was always going to take his time on him and produce him and he gave him a marvellous ride.”
He added of Cliffs Of Moher: “I was delighted with the second horse. All those really well-bred, good-looking horses, they can make dramatic improvement from race to race, and we knew that they had all improved [from their trial runs].
“I didn’t really know what was going to happen. I thought Ryan’s horse was open to the most improvement, which he was and he did, but Ryan said he got there and he just got tired in his hands. I was half-afraid that that could happen, but we’d just about made the race. If he hadn’t run at Chester, he wouldn’t have made it here. He came with his long, sustained run and in the last 100 yards it just told, the lack of preparation.”
Michael Tabor, a former bookmaker and one of the co-owners of Wings Of Eagles in John Magnier’s Coolmore Stud syndicate, said that he had felt before the race that any one of their six runners could make the step up to win. “We knew Wings Of Eagles was in the mix, but no more than that,” Tabor said. “He’s proved to be a very, very good horse for the future but I’m afraid I didn’t back him and I didn’t have a bet in the race.”
The betting suggested beforehand that this was one of the most open Derbys for years but the fact that a 40-1 chance crossed the line in front does not necessarily mean that it was a sub-par renewal. That will become apparent only in his remaining starts, but however his career plays out, Wings Of Eagles and Beggy are Derby winners, and nothing will ever change that.