The 1981 Derby, the 202nd renewal of the classic, saw an odds on favourite in Shergar take on 17 rivals, in what was a typically big field in those days. What was notable was there was not a single Irish runner in the race, with two French raiders, although Lydian was withdrawn at the start as he would not go in the stalls.
Shergar showed plenty of promise at two, including a second in the Futurity at Doncaster, however he really blossomed over the winter. He had already won two Trial races – at Sandown in April and then the Chester Vase two weeks later in effortless style, leading to his extremely short odds.
There was a very strong early pace set by Riberetto and Sunley Builds, both of whom were to fade out of contention by the home straight. However key to the race was that Shergar had been able to get a perfect position in behind the pacesetters. This was the first time we got to see how good a big race jockey Walter Swinburn (then only nineteen) was to become.
There was a good 30 lengths between first and last by the time they rounded Tattenham Corner, yet Shergar was swinging though on the bridle past those two leaders into the straight. As soon as Swinburn asked Shergar to lengthen the race was done and he powered 10 lengths clear of the field – at the time the biggest winning margin in the history of the Derby.
This race was the first Derby I can remember watching and I must admit I was proud of selecting Glint of Gold as he was a son of former winner Mill Reef. Ian Balding’s charge finished well for second at odds of 13/1, and jockey John Matthias told the story that he thought he was coming through to win the race until looking up and seeing the figure of Shergar ahead of him in the distance.
Shergar would of course go on to double up in the Irish Derby (with Lester Piggott replacing the suspended Swinburn) and the King George at Ascot. It was a great shame that we only got to see one group of Shergar’s offspring – he did manage to sire one classic winner in the Irish St Leger, but we did get to see a great racehorse in action and his 1981 demolition job remains one of the most impressive Derby wins of all time.