Value hunting in Epsom Oaks & latest thoughts on Derby

Profile Picture: Kellie Reilly

June 2nd, 2016

After the finalizing of the fields, and the prospect of perhaps a little more give in the ground than first expected at Epsom, here are my updated thoughts on Friday’s Oaks (G1) and Saturday’s Derby (G1).

While there hasn’t been a significant change to the Oaks picture since my Monday preview, the midweek rain might not have done any favors to odds-on favorite Minding as she faces a crucial stamina test. Sure, she’s won over rain-softened ground before, but over a mile. And although Epsom is currently in the process of drying out, further showers are in the forecast. Every degree of slower going increases the premium put on staying capacity.

Note that trainer Aidan O’Brien is sounding rather circumspect:

“We can't be sure about the trip by any means,” he told PA Sport. “She has form in soft ground but going a mile and a half first time, you wouldn't be sure about it.

“It's her first time over a mile and a half and we're looking forward to seeing her run over it.”

For whatever it’s worth, O’Brien had issued a vaguely similar caution prior to Air Force Blue’s bombing out as the 4-5 favorite in the 2000 Guineas (G1):

“He's always been very quick and has a lot of natural speed, that's why we are hoping he gets a mile.

“Obviously this will be the acid test as it's his first run over a mile, we'll probably learn a lot about him.

“You'd have to be hopeful that he will get it, but you can never be sure until they do it on the day.”

That alleged parallel will look very silly if Minding flaunts her huge class edge and hacks up, but in the circumstances (including the tight turnaround from an Irish 1000 Guineas [G1] loss where she banged her head hard) the price is cramped.

The Oaks hasn’t been hospitable to favorites in recent years. The last favorite to win was Sariska (2009), and four of the last five years have turned up big-priced winners (20-1 in 2011-13 and 50-1 last year).

Interestingly, O’Brien left in two other Oaks candidates who were recently deemed less likely to line up – Seventh Heaven and Somehow. Seventh Heaven wasn’t in love with Lingfield when just prevailing in her Oaks Trial, which begs the question of how she’ll cope with Epsom. Somehow’s tight finish in the Cheshire Oaks didn’t stamp her as a major Epsom threat either, and the form of that race hasn’t stood up at all. Unfortunately, a more intriguing O’Brien entrant, Even Song, was withdrawn.

At the moment, Turret Rocks is shaping up as the Oaks’ best value play (7-1 in Brisnet PPs and 8-1 antepost) as an established Group 1 performer who will improve second time out over the added ground. I can’t see her finishing out of the top three. I think a lot of Godolphin’s supplemented Skiffle too, but she’s currently trading as second favorite (at about 15-2) in just her third lifetime start on a steep class hike. On paper, she should be higher than the more accomplished Turret Rocks. If Skiffle’s odds drift from her 6-1 morning line before post time, though, she’d become more attractive.

The 20-1 Harlequeen looms as a live longshot, based both on her company lines and proven proficiency over soft. It probably won’t be that soft Friday, but the course will be kinder than it was at York when she was fourth to the mightily impressive So Mi Dar.

Unlike the Oaks, midweek developments only served to cloud the Derby picture still further.

O’Brien’s unbeaten US Army Ranger was the subject of a surprising market drift, so much so that I feared something were amiss. Perhaps it was fueled by concerns about the rain, but the highly regarded colt had broken his maiden on heavy going at the Curragh. His action also looks like the type to go over anything. Perhaps some were jumping ship on the basis of wild Twitter rumors that Ryan Moore wasn’t going to ride him. But Moore is in fact sticking with US Army Ranger, who’s now at around 9-2 (his morning line in the Brisnet PPs), making him second favorite to Wings of Desire. If this beautifully bred son of Galileo and Moonstone is as good as Ballydoyle whispers have it, that’s a square price.

Given the open-looking nature of this renewal of the Blue Riband, there are plenty of contenders for the “best value” designation. Obviously, the trick is not just to pinpoint who’s overpriced relative to their win chances, but to find the one(s) who will actually outperform their odds.

Another of O’Brien’s quintet, Deauville, has been a market mover and is now as low as 8-1. He was even better value when I was scribbling Monday, but he remains a solid chance to reverse form with the possible underlay Wings of Desire. Deauville also has the “racing fates” angle: his full brother, The Corsican, tragically suffered a fatal injury on the gallops Wednesday. Surely the family is owed a better turn of luck? Stablemate Idaho has also seen some support, likely due to his better-than-appears placings to Harzand and Moonlight Magic. Port Douglas, who was just edged by US Army Ranger in the Chester Vase (G3), seems pegged for the pacemaking role with the addition of blinkers at Epsom.

Speaking of Moonlight Magic, I originally thought he’d offer best value, and he remains a proper win contender at 12-1. But his rail draw is not a positive: you’ve got to go back to Oath (1999) to find the last Derby winner to break from post 1. And there had previously been a 27-year drought back to Roberto (1972). I really, really wanted to like him – a Jim Bolger-trained close relative of Sea the Stars! Have to dig deeper into the rail draw history to see just how much I should be put off by this. (Fellow Bolger trainee Turret Rocks has also drawn the rail in the Oaks, but Legatissimo nearly won from the same post last year.)

The rain has virtually assured the participation of Harzand, who’s now emerged as a possibility for the “best value” label. I didn’t really expect Harzand to line up, especially since trainer Dermot Weld had described him as one to thrive as the season progresses, and jockey Pat Smullen doubted his agility to navigate Epsom.

Algometer is another who’s here only because of the rain, but he’s an appealing longshot for the exotics. Like Deauville, Algometer has the same “racing fates” angle because The Corsican was his stablemate from the David Simcock yard. Surely Simcock deserves good fortune? Algometer is 25-1, actually higher than another appealing longshot, Red Verdon, despite the fact he’s exiting higher-class races.

For more details on all of the classic contenders at Epsom, including links to race replays, see the Oaks and Derby form guides. Also check out the Coronation Cup (G1) preview featuring Postponed, Found, and Simple Verse.

Turret Rocks photo courtesy of Epsom via Twitter