Adam Kirby wasn’t supposed to be on Epsom Derby surprise winner Adayar. And Adayar wasn’t supposed to sniff the Epsom Derby winner’s circle. Not at 16/1, and not as Godolphin’s third-string colt.

Jockey Adam Kirby aboard 16/1 Adayar scored a resounding upset in Saturday’s Epsom Derby. A game of musical jockeys put the 32-year-old Kirby on Adayar earlier in the week. (Image: PA Wire)

But in a replay of the Kentucky Derby here in the US, colts don’t realize they’re not supposed to win. And Adayar replicated Medina Spirit’s 12/1 Kentucky Derby surprise in the UK, winning the Epsom Derby by 4 ½ lengths Saturday.

The Epsom Derby is one of England’s biggest, most prestigious, and historic races. How historic? The race dates to 1780, predating the Kentucky Derby by 95 years, the Preakness Stakes by 93, and the Belmont Stakes by 87. Classical painters from Theodore Gericault to John Alexander Harrington-Bird immortalized the Epsom Derby on canvas. King Edward VII owned the 1909 winner, Minoru.

Run at Epsom Downs in Surrey, the 1 ½-mile test for 3-year-olds returned to its traditional first Saturday in June date after running on July 4 last year.

Jockey musical chairs puts Kirby in the right seat

This year’s Epsom Derby came with plenty of pre-race drama, most of which centered around a game of musical chairs for the race’s riders. The jockey musical chairs for Saturday’s Belmont Stakes had nothing on what transpired across the Atlantic this week.

It started with Kirby slated to ride John Leeper, one of the race’s favorites. But after heralded trainer Aidan O’Brien scratched all but one horse – 11/8 favorite Bolshoi Ballet — star jockey Frankie Dettori was left without a ride. That happened after Godolphin’s go-to jockey, Ryan Moore, took Bolshoi Ballet’s reins.

That couldn’t stand, not for one of England’s biggest races. John Leeper’s owner wasted little time grabbing Dettori. That, in turn, left Kirby without a mount. Not for long, however. Trainer Charlie Appleby, who hadn’t planned running Adayar in the Epsom Derby, bumped Oisin Murphy and gave Kirby the ride.

Adayar needed a powerful push

That Adayar was even in the discussion was surprising. Sheik Mohammed bin Rashad Al Maktoum, Godolphin’s well-heeled owner, talked Appleby into running Adayar, who came in off a pair of seconds in trial races at Sandown and Lingfield. The son of Frankel was Appleby’s third-string Derby horse, behind Hurricane Lane and One Ruler. Bettors made him a 16/1 afterthought.

“All the credit goes to Sheikh Mohammed. We spoke on Wednesday night after the horses did their breeze in the morning and I’ll be honest, I said to His Highness, ‘I couldn’t be happier with them all, but I did feel this horse was more a Leger horse,’” Appleby told reporters, referring to a September race for 3-year-olds. “He said, ‘Charlie, run him; there’s only one Derby.’”

So Appleby ran him, and Kirby validated Sheikh Mohammed’s decision with an audacious ride. Kirby let Gear Up set the early pace, then pounced at the perfect time. Kirby sent Adayar through an inside gap just as Gear Up tired. He seized the lead with a quarter-mile to go and opened up to that eventual 4 ½-length victory.

Adayar beat rivals, history, Epsom Derby’s post of death

“There was just enough room up the rail. I thought I needed to get in or get out,” Kirby told reporters after the race. “I knew I had to make a decision, so I went in. Luckily, the horse was brave enough to go through the gap, and then, he galloped up to the line.”

Making this even more of a surprise, Adayar won from post 1 – Epsom’s traditional Post of Death. He became the first horse since Oath in 1999 to win the Epsom Derby from the outside stall. Adayar’s victory gave Godolphin a Saturday to remember. The giant ownership/breeding group also owns Essential Quality, who won Saturday’s Belmont Stakes at Belmont Park.

In the end, Dettori wins some, loses some

As for Moore and Bolshoi Ballet, they finished a well-beaten seventh. An eight-time Epsom Derby winner, O’Brien told reporters afterward that he wasn’t sure why. Meanwhile, Dettori and John Leeper? They wound up ninth of the 11 colts in the field – 20 lengths back.

That came a day after Dettori piloted Snowfall to a record 16-length victory in the Epsom Oaks. That gave the 50-year-old Dettori his 21st British Classic victory, tying Fred Archer’s 135-year-old record.