Khalifa Sat comes home second to Serpentine in the Epsom Derby
Khalifa Sat Image Credit: AFP

The Epsom Derby, unquestionably the most famous horse race in the world, has a rich history of stories about the legendary horses that have claimed their place among the pantheon of great winners.

From the legendary Diomed, who triumphed in the first-ever running of the race in 1780 right up to last year’s shock winner, Serpentine, there are so many stories to be told.

Sea-Bird the brilliant and authoritative winner in 1965, Nijinsky, the Triple Crown hero who thrilled crowds in 1970, or the outstanding Lammtarra, who made history as the first horse to win Britain’s premier Classic on his seasonal debut when breaking the track record, the list of high achievers is endless.

But what about the horses that came close to winning, the ones that were the unluckiest losers?

Just days before this year’s Epsom Derby Festival, which takes place on Friday, June 4 and Saturday, June 5, Gulf News reflects some of the great horses that were narrowly denied in their quest for Classic glory in Britain.

El Gran Senor
El Gran Senor Image Credit: Courtesy: mdthoroughbredhalloffame

1984: El Gran Senor

Christy Roche and outsider Secreto denied favourite El Gan Senor victory by a short head in the 205th running of the race, which was offering the biggest purse ever in the race, £227,680.

Trained in Ireland by 27-year-old David O’Brien, Secreto just got his head in front of the odds-on favourite El Gran Senor, ridden by Pat Eddery for David’s father the great Vincent O’Brien.

El Gran Senor was regarded as best horse of his generation in Europe at both two and three years of age, ahead of an outstanding contemporaries like Darshaan, Rainbow Quest, Sadler’s Wells, Lashkari, Pebbles, Comanche Run, and Northern Trick.

The Derby loss was his only defeat in eight races.

1986: Dancing Brave

American-bred and British-trained Dancing Brave, the outstanding European racehorse of 1986 when he won the 2000 Guineas, the Eclipse Stakes, the King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes and the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe, suffered a rare defeat in the Derby.

Classic winning jockey Greville Starkey delivered his superstar and 2/1 late after racing at the back of the field for most of the 2,400 metre trip, Dancing Brave looked to have plenty in the tank to catch Shahrastani and an enthusiastic Walter Swinburn, but the finishing post came too quick and he had to settle for second, a half length in arrears.

Beside his Derby loss Dancing Brave also suffered defeat in the Breeders’ Cup Turf before he was exported to Japan where he died in 1999.


The outsider ran the race of his life to finish a head second to Shirley Heights in another thrilling renewal of the Derby.

With American great Willie Shoemaker in the irons Hawaiian Sound was ridden to lead and looked the likely winner with less than a furlong to run. But Greville Starkey concurred up a big effort from Shirley Heights to catch his in the final strides and win by a head.

Trained by the now retired Barry Hills, Hawaiian sound, who got his name from his sire Hawaii. was also placed in several top-class races including Royal Lodge Stakes, Chester Vase, Irish Derby, King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes and Champion Stakes.

1982: Touching Wood

The lightly favoured Touching Wood may have finished three lengths behind the winner, Golden Fleece, but there was a stage in the race that he 40/1 chance could pull off a huge upset.

But once Pat Eddery awakened the Robert Sangster-owned Golden Fleece to his task it was always clear that there would be no upset that year, although, it was only the derby distance that appeared to ave caught out Touching Wood.

The winner also had too much finishing speed which the runner-up could not match albeit producing a huge career effort

Khalifa Sat Image Credit: Supplied picture

2020: Khalifa Sat

Khalifa Sat, owned by Dubai businessman Ahmed Al Shaikh, race the race of his life to finish second to the runaway winner Serpentine in last year’s 241st renewal of the Epsom Derby.

Purchased by trainer Andrew Balding as a 40,000 Euro yearling from Goffs. Khalifa Sat the 50/1 shot may have finished 5 ½ lengths behind the winner, but he was far from disgraced.

Ridden by Emmet McNamara, who was riding in the Derby for the first time, Serpentine was regarded as the pacemaker for stable companions and principal hopes, Russian Emperor and Mogul. But once he got to the front he never looked back with only Tom Marquand and Khalifa Sat offering some opposition from the rest of the 16 strong field.