Donn's Articles » Emmet McNamara

Emmet McNamara

A week later, and it’s only sinking in: Emmet McNamara, Derby-winning jockey.

It was quiet.  Nobody around Epsom’s parade ring before the race, no crowds lining the walkway from the parade ring to the racecourse, no people in the infield on your right on the way to the start, no double-decker busses, no picnics, no parties.  That’s what behind closed doors means.

It was quiet at the start too, and it was quiet during the race.  Nobody in front of him, no other jockeys shouting for room behind as they wheeled down around Tattenham Corner, and no horses around him.  He didn’t hear another horse.

Even to ride in the Derby. 

“I knew earlier in the week that there was a chance that I would be going,” recalls the rider now.  “Aidan (O’Brien) rang me and told me that we could be running five or six in the Derby, and that there could be the option for me to go, if I wanted.  Obviously, I knew that I would have to self-isolate for 14 days if I did go, but that would be a small price to pay to ride in the Derby.  When you are a kid, you dream of riding in the Derby.” 

He could ride too as a kid.  Son of National Hunt trainer Eric, he started riding ponies when he was 11.  Twice champion of the pony racing circuit, he rode 65 winners one season, setting a new record.  And he was champion apprentice in 2008 when he was with Ger Lyons. 

On Thursday, it was confirmed, six Aidan O’Brien-trained horses would line up in the Investec Derby, and Emmet McNamara would be on Serpentine.

“Hermine looks after Serpentine at home, and Alan Crowe had been riding him in his work, but I had ridden him in a couple of pieces of work, and I always liked him.  I was impressed by his maiden win too the previous Saturday at The Curragh.  He won by nine lengths, he powered out through the line and he clocked a good time.  There are not many horses who win a maiden at The Curragh by nine lengths.” 

He may have been a relative outsider, only fourth best even of the Ballydoyle sextet according to the market, but when you are riding in the Derby for Aidan O’Brien, you always have a chance.  His plan was to ride Serpentine forward from early.  The horse is bred for stamina, a son of Galileo out of a mare who was placed in the Oaks, and he had made all the running when he had won his maiden.  It made sense to ride him forward.  McNamara walked the track on the morning of the race with Seamie Heffernan. 

“Seamie was brilliant.  He was riding his own horse, Russian Emperor, he was planning his own race, but at different points on the track as we walked it in the morning, he’d stop and he’d say, this is what you want to be doing here, this is what you want to be thinking there.” 

He was thinking that he needed a little bit of racing room when the stalls opened and he and Serpentine emerged from the 12th one.  Kameko, next door in stall 11, moved a little to his right, in towards Serpentine, but McNamara rode his horse forward, got his room, got daylight.  Then relaxed.  By the time they had gone a furlong, he was in front.  By the time they had gone three furlongs, he had settled into a clear lead.  Then it was quiet.  

“Aidan had given me a lot of confidence going out.  He had told me that this horse had a real chance.  He told me that he would keep going all the way to the winning line.” 

He tried to give his horse a breather about six furlongs out.  Get him to relax, fill himself up, get ready to build it up again and then the final push.  You can’t go pell-mell for all 12 furlongs.

“When I gave him his breather, he took it.  He was clever like that.  And he handled the downhill run very well.  Other horses backed off it, but he didn’t.  He was brave and he was well balanced.  I was comfortable at every stage.” 

He started to build momentum from before the home turn.  You can’t go from second gear to fifth gear in one move.  You have to build it up.  

“You can see the winning post in the distance, and you are building towards that.  You see the furlong poles go past, three furlongs, two furlongs, one furlong, and you are still in front.  You still can’t hear anything else.  And Serpentine kept lengthening.  He was brilliant.  I knew that it was going to take a good one to get past me.”

Then he hit the winning line.  Elation, relief, disbelief.

“There was a split second when you’re thinking, am I after missing a flag or something?  Is this the Derby that never was?  It was only a split second though.  Then Oisin Murphy rode up beside me and congratulated me.  Then it was real.”

McNamara downplays the part that he played.  He talks about the horse, about the trainer, the genius of Aidan O’Brien.  But it was a superb ride too.  He gave his horse a ride that played to his strengths, he got the fractions spot on, he got his horse to take his breather at the opportune time, and he built all the way to the line.  He gave his horse a ride that got him from the starting stalls to the winning line as quickly as possible, as efficiently as possible.

His family were watching from home on Saturday.  His mother and father, his sisters.  His brother Conor was riding at Bellewstown, but his last ride was an hour before the Derby, so he was able to tune in from there.

“It was a huge sense of satisfaction,” says Emmet.  “Elation, tinged with disbelief.  I spoke to Aidan afterwards, and he was delighted.  I will be forever grateful to him for giving me the opportunity, and I was delighted to be able to repay the faith that he and the owners showed in me.  It was a bit surreal, coming back into the winner’s enclosure.” 

And quietly, it started to sink in. 

©  The Sunday Times, 12th July 2020