Racing / 214th Derby: Fatherland fails but O'Brien leaves his trademark: Commander In Chief 's win leaves Ireland's old aristocracy trailing behind a countryman fresh to success in the premier Classic -

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The Independent Online
VINCENT O'BRIEN failed to win his seventh Derby yesterday but still left Epsom in triumph, as befits a man who is the nearest thing to royalty you would find in Ireland. He was over a million pounds richer from the half- share he had sold in Fatherland, a tame ninth in the race O'Brien and Lester Piggott once dominated. Somebody should teach him how to lose.

In the parade ring, O'Brien was typically professorial as he strode past the Queen and most of her family with barely a glance at the monarch. He could afford to be nonchalant, even without the memory of those previous six Derby winners to sustain him. 'He's already won, hasn't he?' a close associate said. 'He got a million quid for that half-share.'

True enough. Amid the clamour to proclaim O'Brien and Piggott as the greatest team ever to bring horses to Epsom, it was easy to forget that the trainer in the partnership made his name partly through his skill in horse-trading, that ancient Irish art. Robert Sangster, the pools tycoon, chose O'Brien to prepare his multi- million dollar racehorses not least because he revered the man from Tipperary's expertise in the market place. It worked again with Fatherland.

Despite the starting price - a skinny 8-1 - and the accumulated weight of tradition, Fatherland was always a long-shot. He was deficient both in form and stamina. Sure, he looked neat and bonny enough as he carried Piggott to the start. Sure, he resembled his sire, Sadler's Wells - one of the toughest and best from the O'Brien- Sangster era - but in truth the two grandfathers behind Fatherland's challenge were always going to be peripheral figures in this 214th Derby.

O'Brien probably knew it. The handshakes with Fatherland's new part-owners were awkward, almost nervous. The staff at O'Brien's great training centre, Ballydoyle, have been there long enough to distinguish a Nijinsky from a Nonentity, and doubtless a reading of the form book together with a look at the pedigree charts will have punctured any self- deluding thoughts about Fatherland's chance. The stable even have their own mock Tattenham Corner to gauge a horse's readiness for Epsom.

Piggott and O'Brien have a combined age of 133. O'Brien has just 12 inmates at Ballydoyle as he ambles towards retirement. And yet the procedure when a fresh intake is unloaded is always the same, the assumption being that one of the new arrivals is going to win the Derby. 'He doesn't like bad horses,' Bill Farrell, O'Brien's assistant, confided recently. Not that he has had many.

To understand the empathy with horses that brought O'Brien Derby victories with Sir Ivor, Nijinsky and the rest, you have only to watch him in the parade ring. The head tilts, the body leans, the hand is raised to the chin for support. It was grey and chilly at Epsom yesterday, but Sangster recalls O'Brien standing in the midsummer Kentucky heat for upwards of an hour while studying yearlings.

Yesterday O'Brien (now 76) was examining the other runners as much as his own. In loped Piggott, now 57, for a ritual nodding session. Some jockeys you tell how to ride the Derby. Not Piggott. He wouldn't listen anyway, as O'Brien used to find in the days before they separated in 1980. Piggott had his own idea of how to test a horse, and it was not always to O'Brien's liking.

There will be other Derbys for Piggott, but O'Brien, with his team depleted, may not be back. The armchair beckons. Many say he should have handed over to his son, Charles, long before now. But as the deal he struck over Fatherland shows, there are still a few moves left in the O'Brien repertoire.

In the race, Piggott did his waiting act and held Fatherland near the rear of the field in the hope of conserving his stamina. The trouble was, they stayed there, with Piggott reporting later that Fatherland had neither the balance nor the agility to accommodate Epsom's undulations. 'Lester said he didn't act on this track,' O'Brien said as he sauntered casually back to the weighing room, like a mildly entertained day tripper. 'Some horses do become unbalanced round here.'

The owners were commiserated with and invited for tea. O'Brien said that far from losing faith in Fatherland, he would prepare him for either the Irish Derby or the Eclipse Stakes at Sandown. A thought on the race generally? O'Brien paid tribute to Commander In Chief, but pointed on his racecard to the name of the second horse - the decidedly ordinary Blue Judge.

It was not a great Derby, he seemed to be saying. But it was for O'Brien.

(Photograph omitted)