Until a few days ago, the third Classic of the Flat season, the Investec Oaks at Epsom, looked little more than a Hamdan Al Maktoum benefit.
Nothing fundamentally wrong with that, you might think, given that Sheikh Hamdan is one of British racing’s most celebrated owners.
But to inject life into the race for the sake of punters, competition for his fillies, TAGHROODA and TARFASHA, at the head of the betting market was sorely needed.
And thankfully, the injection has arrived in the nick of time -- courtesy of MARVELLOUS and MARSH DAISY, who join IHTIMAL and MADAME CHIANG as viable alternatives to the big two.
Throw in live outsiders AMAZING MARIA, VOLUME and TAPESTRY and you have an Oaks line-up worthy of the late Sir Henry Cecil, in whose memory this year’s renewal is named, even if not quite as strong or fascinating as that for the Investec Derby 24 hours later.
Aidan O’Brien’s Marvellous burst on to the scene with a spectacular last-to-first victory in last Sunday’s Irish 1,000 Guineas at The Curragh. Not only did she spring from nowhere on the track, the performance also came from nowhere in her profile.
Her seasonal re-appearance at the end of March was inconspicuous, and she was found to be coughing afterwards. The fact that she was earmarked for the UK’s leading Oaks trial, the Musidora Stakes at York in the middle of May was all the evidence we needed that her home reputation remained intact. But she was withdrawn from the contest, according to O’Brien, because of the Soft ground, which she proceeded to handle with aplomb at The Curragh!
All cats are out of all bags now, however. She is heading for Epsom, and she has been punted with force to rack up a qukickfire Classic double.
The form of last Sunday’s triumph cannot be questioned. The runner-up, Lightning Thunder, was also second in the Qipco 1,000 Guineas at Newmarket and is a filly of the highest class.
So the only worry surrounding Marvellous’s challenge relates to the immediate step-up in trip from 1m and 12f. Many will scoff that doubts are even being raised, given that her sire, Galileo, is such a powerful influence for stamina, whoever the dam might be. But even O’Brien is reluctant to guarantee the ability to stay of a filly whose mother’s best performance came over 6f as a two-year-old when she won the Cherry Hinton Stakes.
That mother, You’resothrilling, was unconvincing on her only try at further than 1m, while none of her relatives is proven above 10f, including her great brother, Giant’s Causeway.
If I was a Marvellous man, I would be a shade concerned too that Joseph O’Brien opted to partner Palace, ahead of the eventual winner, before last Sunday’s race. And it might be worth bearing in mind too that Tapestry, another daughter of Galileo, has always been considered a better filly at Ballydoyle.
On the back of her impressive juvenile form, Tapestry was a massive letdown when fancied for the 1,000 Guineas, and is currently wildly overpriced if O’Brien has managed to put back the condition on her that was missing at Newmarket. Having said that, she is no more likely to stay the Oaks trip, on pedigree, than Marvellous. Her dam was a brilliant miler and hails from the families of two of the most brilliant milers we have ever seen, Kingmambo and Miesque.
Stamina is not an issue with the second fully to enter the Oaks equation this week -- Hughie Morrison’s rapidly progressive Marsh Daisy, whose owners are prepared to fork out the £30,000 fee to supplement her for the race.
She is a half-sister to several 12f winners, while the sire of her dam is Lammtarra, no less, unbeaten winner of the Derby, the King George and the Arc in 1995.
It is almost unheard of for fillies who didn’t run as two-year-olds to land the Oaks. But after an eyecatching debut at Newbury in April, Marsh Daisy won her maiden in a fast time against older rivals at Ascot before scooting up at Goodwood last week.
Each/way value remains embedded in her price, but does it reflect Morrison’s comments immediately after the Goodwood race about his charge being too big to handle the Epsom gradients? She has also shown a preference for give in the ground and although the Surrey track has been hit by bucketloads of rain over the past week, the forecast between now and day of race, next Friday, is for much more settled weather.
On the subject of trends, it is equally unheard of for fillies to win the Oaks without a prep run in the same season -- a negative that Amazing Maria will try to conquer.
The poor form of her trainer, Ed Dunlop, needs conquering too, but it is impossible to ignore the whispers emanating from Newmarket about the superb work on the gallops of this grey daughter of Mastercraftsman.
She improved for each of her four outings in 2013 when Dunlop disclosed that she was the only two-year-old capable of working with the lead horse of his previous Oaks heroine, Snow Fairy. She did also show bags of speed, however, as her pedigree entitled her to, and after having to be withdrawn at the 11th hour from her main target, the 1,000 Guineas, you have to wonder if connections are clutching at straws here.
As more and more question marks arise, I consistently return to Sheikh Hamdan’s duo as the most likely protagonists next Friday.
His racing manager, Angus Gold, has expressed fears that softish ground might put them off running Tarfasha, which seems curious considering she handled it perfectly well when a sparkling winner of the Group Three Blue Wind Stakes at Naas on her seasonal bow two weeks ago.
Unlike many, I am still far from convinced she will run at Epsom. But the most likely reason is that she could well spike the guns pf the Hamdan team’s number one choice, Taghrooda, so why waste a top-class dart when you can throw it at another top-class board, such as the Ribblesdale Stakes at Royal Ascot and/or the Irish Oaks?
However, veteran trainer Dermot Weld is determined to have a go with Tarfasha at Epsom which, given the knowledge and experience he has amassed over the years, is good enough for me to suggest she’s good enough.
I confess that her distant third to My Titania on her final two-year-old start does suggest otherwise. But she had previously finished less than a length behind O’Brien Derby hope Geoffrey Chaucer on debut and the visual impression of her win at Naas told most observers that she had improved dramatically over the winter and would improve again for the step-up to 12f.
I suspect also that Weld is encouraged by the fact that two of her close relatives have a shown a marked liking for Epsom. North Light won the Derby in 2004, while Galileo Rock was third in the Derby 12 months ago.
Whether Tarfasha lines up or not, though, it is impossible not to be swayed towards Taghrooda, whose dad, Sea The Stars, was, of course, one of the most impressive winners of the Derby in recent times.
Ever since this big, strong filly took trainer John Gosden by surprise when powering home on debut at Newmarket last September, she has been earmarked for the Epsom Classic. And those ambitions were reinforced by her terrific re-appearance win when stepped up to Listed company for the Pretty Polly Stakes at Newmarket on 1,000 Guineas Day.
In theory, the unsatisfactory, steady pace, especially on quick ground, should have inconvenienced a filly blessed with stamina lines aplenty in her pedigree. But she was ridden with supreme confidence by Paul Hanagan before quickening to draw further and further clear.
Those in behind have done nothing for the form since. But Gosden’s charge is a cast-iron certainty to improve again, as well as relish the Oaks distance, and considering her absence and lack of experience, connections were taken aback by the mature professionalism she showed at HQ.
Furthermore, former champion jockey Hanagan is brimming with confidence that Taghrooda can provide him with his first and long-overdue Classic victory
Having firmly nailed Hamdan’s distinctive blue and white colours to my mast, all that remains is to seek out potential contenders for third place.
I admire the progress being made by trial winners Madame Chiang and Volume, trained in Newmarket by David Simcock and Luca Cumani respectively. Both will definitely stay the Oaks trip, but the latter took a bad Musidora and might not have the speed to stay competitive for long enough at Epsom, while the latter’s pillar-to-post success in a fine race at Newbury was marred by jockey Richard Hughes’s post-race verdict that she wouldn’t handle the Downs because she is such a long-striding, galloping type.
I admire more the consistency at Group level of Godolphin’s Ihtimal. Third in the 1,000 Guineas over an inadequate trip, she is very much built to handle the unique demands of Epsom, while her dam hails from the family of a brilliant former Oaks winner for the boys in blue, Balanchine.
INVESTEC OAKS (Epsom, Saturday 6th June, 4.00)