Epsom Oaks Day: Natavia, US Army Ranger worth a look at the price

Profile Picture: Kellie Reilly

June 1st, 2017

Aidan O’Brien is entitled to turn the Coronation Cup (G1)/Oaks (G1) double at Epsom Friday, with short-priced favorites Highland Reel and Rhododendron the class of their respective fields.

Yet both may be a little more susceptible to upset than their odds suggest. My colleague Vance Hanson articulates why, and offers his own preferred alternatives.

The Coronation Cup, Race 3 (10:10 a.m. EDT)

I’m much more inclined than Vance to forgive Highland Reel’s loss in Hong Kong back in December – note he got pestered in mid-race through a very fast-run Vase (G1) (fastest edition since it became a Group 1, according to Pat Cummings). Of greater concern is that the money-spinning globetrotter tends to progress with racing as the season goes on. This being just his second start of the campaign, coming off a subpar effort on rain-softened ground in Dubai, and with a fair chance of finding more rain here, Highland Reel may not be at his tip-top best. His younger full brother, Idaho, is eminently logical, but he is just resuming from a layoff and may likewise come on for the run.

So I find myself gravitating toward the ostensibly third O’Brien, that frustrating money-burner #8 US Army Ranger (12-1) – only this time, he’ll be a price. Last year, the Galileo blueblood went off favored in the Epsom Derby (G1) as Ballydoyle’s top contender. He still showed evident greenness when finishing second to Harzand, and has yet to win since.

But if you ignore his efforts over 1 1/4 miles, and concentrate on his record at 1 1/2 miles and beyond, US Army Ranger begins to look more appealing. He was a fast-finishing second to Dermot Weld’s Zhukova (last seen crushing them in the Man o’ War [G1]) in the Enterprise (G3) on Irish Champions Day, and in his latest, he strode clear in the Ormonde (G3) at Chester before being nailed by Western Hymn on the line. He appeared to loaf around late in the 13 1/2-furlong contest, and he presumably won’t have as much time to throw it away here. Note that he likewise prepped at Chester en route to Epsom last year.

This could be the spot for US Army Ranger to put it all together at last: third off the layoff, back over the course and distance of arguably his career best. He’s had the talent, and it’s now or possibly never for his prospects of snaring a European Group 1. You might offer a rebuttal about Donnacha O’Brien being aboard. But Ryan Moore was virtually guaranteed to stick with Highland Reel, and given Seamie Heffernan’s history with Idaho, I’m not sure it’s worth over-reading the tea leaves. In any event, US Army Ranger was held in high regard for a reason, which he may still justify on the racecourse.

The Oaks, Race 5 (11:30 a.m. EDT)

Rhododendron would be very tough to beat if duplicating her Fillies’ Mile (G1) heroics from last fall. And in her return to the Rowley Mile for the 1000 Guineas (G1), she certainly shaped like a filly who wants more than a mile now when a staying-on second to stablemate Winter. As strong as her resume is, though, her odds-on favoritism may not reflect the actual talent differential in this quality field – especially at this 1 1/2-mile trip, and if the ground is softer than she likes .

Although by Galileo, Rhododendron is out of Irish 1000 Guineas (G1) heroine Halfway to Heaven, who won over as far as 10 furlongs (barely) in the Nassau (G1). Rhododendron’s classiest full sibling, Flying the Flag, was best at 1 1/4 miles and lost all three times in the vicinity of this distance. Needless to say, she’s a lot better than he was, and class can carry you a long way – like Minding in the 2016 Oaks.

If you’re probing for other worthies at more palatable prices, the top two from the Chesire Oaks, Enable and Alluringly, make all the sense in the world. Enable’s form is rock-solid through her French Oaks (G1)-bound stablemate Shutter Speed, and the Juddmonte homebred got the jump on Alluringly at Chester thanks to a clever Frankie Dettori ride. They were streets ahead of the rest.

A more speculative option is the “other” Juddmonte filly, #7 Natavia (10-1). Like Enable, she is also from the first crop of multiple highweight Nathaniel, who captured the 2011 King George VI & Queen Elizabeth (G1) and 2012 Eclipse (G1) while having the misfortune of bumping into the likes of Frankel, Danedream, and Snow Fairy in other Group 1s.

Unlike Enable, Natavia was purchased at auction, bringing a hefty 600,000 guineas (approximately $966,987) as a Tattersalls October yearling. Also unlike Enable, Natavia was unraced at two and has a lot to prove on paper. Indeed, glancing only at her form lines, you’d wonder what the fuss was about.

But if you watch her, you’ll know. A prerequisite around Epsom is an athletic, well-balanced horse with an ability to travel -- to go along at a good speed comfortably while others start to come under a ride. Natavia has traveled like a dream in both of her career starts this spring, with a superb action that shouts balance, athleticism, and quality. Just worn down late when a close second in her debut over a mile at Newmarket, she took a quantum leap forward in the Fillies’ Trial at Newbury. Whether it was the second-time-out factor, the soft ground, the step up to 1 1/4 miles, or a combination thereof, Natavia simply blew them away in the manner of a potentially high-class individual.

Aside from the blandishments of her replays, there’s the trainer angle. Roger Charlton is a very methodical horseman who exercises great care in spotting. Over the course of his career, he’s had just one runner in the Oaks at Epsom, Clowance, who finished fourth in 2008. Clowance had the more typical pattern of a race at two, winning a maiden at three, and landing her trial – the same one as Natavia. But Natavia has been on a more accelerated program, jumping straight into her Oaks trial while still a maiden. That may speak volumes from this yard.

Natavia looms as quite a pick-up mount for nine-time Irish champion jockey Pat Smullen, who won last year’s Derby aboard Harzand. Chances are she may drift a little higher than 10-1, which would make her an even more enticing play on her own and not just in exotics permutations.