The Coronation Cup, on Friday, sometimes seen purely as a precursor to the Oaks, was a high profile battle of the mile-and-a-half giants.
The nation’s favourite filly, Ouija Board, who won the Oaks here in 2004, was once again pitching for victory against the might of the German-bred, French-trained colt Shirocco. But the colt, who set off favourite, proved worthy of his backers, and the mutterings of “invincible beast” which shot around the winners’ enclosure.
“He is such a wonderful athlete, with such beautiful movement and such great balance,” enthused trainer Andre Fabre.
Ouija Board, ridden by Frankie Dettori, was shaken up in the final straight, quickened, gave her all but couldn’t match Shirocco’s power. She was praised in no uncertain terms by her owner, Lord Derby, however, who credited her with being “surely one of the best fillies in history.
“She has now leapt through the £2 million prize money barrier, surely making her the highest-earning mare, and she must have the most air miles, too. She is so faithful, she always tries her hardest, and she was racing against one of the best 1 1/2 mile colts in the world. She ran a very brave race.”
In Friday’s feature race, the Oaks, Epsom crowds were urging on Speciosa, willing a happy ending to her fairytale performance at the 1,000 Guineas in Newmarket at the beginning of May. She comes from a small stable, and was referred to by trainer Pam Sly after that win as “the monster who came out of the fens”.
But the gamble taken by her trainer – Speciosa had never proved the distance and had experienced nothing in the way of the Epsom racetrack’s steep climb – was too big in the face of Alexandrova. She proved her might by coming from a sticky position at the back of the field in the final furlong’s, demolishing the competition as she tore towards the finish line under Kieren Fallon.
“I only wanted to get in a decent position with her,” explained the jockey, “as the back of the field is not the place you want to be going down the hill, but she just took off with me, We got to the front too soon, but she gave me a marvellous feel and just kept going.”
Speciosa, who made all the early running but was stifled by the distance in the final furlongs, held on for fourth place, beaten by the 33-1 outsider Rising Cross in second, and Short Skirt – whose name provided a predictable degree of hilarity, and support, in the grandstand – in third.
Saturday’s Derby did produce a fairytale finish for victorious Sir Percy’s connections. The colt went one better than his 2,000 Guineas performance at Newmarket, battling on to an agonisingly close victory. It was a dream come true for owners, the Pakenhams, who had spotted him as a foal, but were outbid, and only came across him by chance a year later when trainer Marcus Tregoning was looking for a buyer as he needed a new car.
The colt’s Derby fortune seemed further hampered by injury – he returned unsound from the 2,000 Guineas, by an accident for jockey Martin Dwyer in the paddock on Friday evening, and by a speeding ticket for the trainer on Saturday itself.
“We were so lucky”, said owner Victoria Pakenham. “Marcus has put in a magnificent performance, and this is really unbelievable for us.”
Other strong performances – from 66-1 rank outsider Dragon Dancer in second, and Dylan Thomas (25-1) in third, were somewhat overshadowed by the tragedy of fate. Jockey Fallon’s Friday luck was turned on its head on Saturday – his Derby ride, Horatio Nelson, had to be put down after breaking a foreleg in the Group 1 race, much to the consternation of all concerned. But racecourse vets confirmed that neither jockey nor trainer, Aidan O’Brien, could have foreseen, or prevented the accident, and Fallon’s disappearance from the racecourse, forsaking his final ride of the day, was an indication of just how traumatic such incidents are.