Hanson: Spot plays for the Epsom Oaks, New York Stakes on June 4

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June 2nd, 2021

Our two spot plays on Friday will come on opposite sides of the Atlantic Ocean, the first being the premier fillies' classic in England and the other the feature on Belmont Stakes eve at Belmont Park.

Epsom Oaks (G1) -- Epsom Downs Race 5 (11:30 a.m. ET)

Aidan O'Brien will be favored to win Friday's Epsom Oaks (G1) for a ninth time, but from this viewpoint Roger Varian might be the trainer to fear most in the 1 1/2-mile classic for three-year-old fillies.

Somehow instinctively attracted to so-called "wise guy" horses, #14 Zeyaadah (6-1) had quietly been the filly I'd been leaning toward since her unlucky runner-up finish in the May 5 Cheshire Oaks. Undefeated in three starts beforehand, she was caught in traffic approaching the final bend and, after finding room, uncorked a rally that was too little, too late in the short Chester stretch. Given it was her first start of the season, it was a good prep, and she remains a serious contender, especially for those who aren't willing to take either of O'Brien's leading pair, Santa Barbara and Snowfall, at a short price.

However, after Zeyaadah drew the tricky 1 post at Wednesday's post position draw, I've cooled to her slightly. Another Varian filly, #12 TEONA (6-1), was not nearly as impressive in defeat when narrowly holding third in the May 12 Musidora (G3) at York, but she was not mentally all there that day when acting up in the gate and proving difficult to settle in the early stages. The race was not a truly run one, either, with longshot Snowfall left alone on an easy lead and subsequently a dominating winner by 3 3/4 lengths.

Teona will sport a hood (blinkers in American parlance) for the first time in the Oaks, and she's reportedly worked satisfactorily for Varian while wearing it in the interim. An eye-catching maiden winner over the all-weather in her penultimate start, Teona should relish Epsom's 1 1/2-mile configuration being a daughter of 2009 Derby (G1) winner Sea the Stars and the Group 1-winning Ambivalent, who placed in a Coronation Cup (G1) over the same course and distance. If she keeps her head on, I like her chances and will play to her to win as well in an exacta with Zeyaadah.

New York S. (G2) -- Belmont Park Race 9 (5:15 p.m. ET)

The $750,000 New York S. (G2) is another fascinating betting race on Friday, this one for older fillies and mares over 1 1/4 miles on the turf. With the course likely to remain on the softer side with rain forecast Thursday into Friday, we'll upgrade the chances of #2 VIRGINIA JOY (10-1) for owner Peter Brant and trainer Chad Brown.

Virginia Joy proved one of the better fillies of her generation in Germany. A Group 3 winner last July in Hamburg over Zamrud, she was outfinished by that rival and the John Gosden-trained Miss Yoda in the German Oaks (G1) next out, but not by much. Her final race in Germany, a noted Group 2 at Baden-Baden for fillies and mares, resulted in a second-place finish to the aforementioned Zamrud over 1 1/2 miles. She was subsequently sold for 975,000 Euro.

Virginia Joy's U.S. debut was only against second-level allowance company over the New York course and distance on April 23, but she overcame a slow pace to make up an 11-length deficit, produced a strong late kick and won eased up by three parts of length under Irad Ortiz Jr., who retains the mount for the New York.

Somehow lucking out in not catching truly soft ground in her native Germany, Virginia Joy nonetheless has several soft-course specialists in her immediate family, including sire Soldier Hollow and dam Virginia Sun. Both raced in Germany and thus were well acquainted with the notoriously soft ground often present for that country's biggest races. The guess is the ground will  prove no hurdle for Virginia Joy, who'll probably be overlooked a bit in this deep cast.