It's nearly June already - where has the year gone? - and that means we're days from the third Classic of the season, the Oaks.
Contested over a mile and a half - and ten yards, which have rarely been more material than when Qualify prevailed in the last stride a year ago - eligible three-year-old fillies traverse the undulating cambered pistes of Epsom's Downs in their bid for glory.
It has been a tricky race in which to find the winner in recent times, too, which should be borne in mind for those bullish (or unimaginative) enough to want to pile in on the 5/4 favourite, Minding, more of which shortly.
Trends are interesting for context, and they often throw up meaningful snippets that make a runner look more or less attractive than its odds. They are not, however, alpha and omega for wagering purposes: history may be a solid guide to the future, but such an approach ignores evolution. And luck. And, more fundamentally, form.
And there is the difference between happenstance - a random collection of coincidences claimed as material - and actual probable patterns emerging from the data. After such a pompous decrial of the 'the trends boys' let us hope a) that there is something worth mentioning from a historical perspective, and b) that I don't hatchet that history in a (completely) unscientific way.
My gratitude as ever is due to horseracebase.com for the core inputs in this section, covering the last 19 years.
Last Time Out
In a race which represents the pinnacle for middle distance Classic generation fillies - in early season at least - it comes as little surprise that most Oaks winners also won their prior start. From 45% of the runners, last day winners have scored 63% of the wins and 59% of the places. As optimal a means of finding the winner as that is, like an over-exposed ratings agency sharing its core metric left, right and sideways, it offers little in the way of value.
To wit, the 106 last time out winners since 1997 may have scored in the Oaks a dozen times but, backed in equal measure, they yielded a loss at starting price of 32.59 points, or -31% ROI. Ouch.
Contrarians will be heartened to note that those finishing outside the top five last time have won three times, and placed on five occasions, from just 26 runners. Whilst strike rates of 11.5% win and 19% place are unexciting to many, those same crowds have unwittingly thumbed their noses to notional profits of 49 points at SP.
It should be said that the entire SP profit (and one more point) is comprised by Qualify's 50/1 success last term, but that filly was sent off at a Betfair SP of 116.75 and was available at plenty bigger in the morning. The other two winners in this group were sent off in the days before BSP's, 2003 and 1998.
Fillies running second last time - like Minding, for instance - have won three of the 19 renewals since 1997, from 44 runners, for a collective profit of 14.25 points. While Minding is unlikely to cover the costs of backing all last day runners up in the Epsom field, fillies such as Architecture and Beautiful Morning, and even Ballydoyle if she shows up, probably would.
How long is an ideal layoff between a filly's last race and the Oaks? More specifically, if you're a fan of Minding, are the twelve days between the Curragh and Epsom sufficient to bring her A game to the Downs? There is good news and bad news for Minding-fanciers here.
First, the good news. A trio of young ladies have reeled back to the track within between eight and fifteen days to win the Oaks, from 39 to attempt the feat. Better still, all three ran in the Irish 1000 Guineas previously. And all three were trained by Aidan O'Brien.
So far so good. But... let's get a bit more specific and, I'm afraid, pour some tepid water on the Minding wildfire.
Of those three winners, two - Qualify and Shahtoush - were well beaten in the Irish Guineas. Why is that material? Because it implies they didn't have especially hard races on the Curragh. Minding most certainly did, engaging in a protracted - and ultimately futile - duel with the mud-loving Jet Setting, the pair pulling ten lengths clear of a solid yardstick in third.
That Minding sustained an injury makes her effort more creditable, and also, arguably, more debilitating.
The third of Aidan's Irish Guineas-Oaks musketeers was Imagine, who won the Irish race on her prior start. However, she did not go to Newmarket.
Of the ten O'Brien fillies to take in the Guineas at both Newmarket and the Curragh, only the aforementioned pair of tenth-placed Curragh finishers managed to win the Oaks. Shahtoush was second at Newmarket, Qualify last.
What I'm trying to get across is that Minding has a historical mountain to climb in terms of putting two hard races in the previous month behind her, even before considering the racing test and the opposition at Epsom.
Can she win? Of course! Is she value? Oooh no, missus. Not on your nelly. As Frankie Howerd might have said.
Returning to the marginally more macro layoff picture, there is very little to report. Those off between two weeks and a month have performed to par (62% runners, 63% winners, 64% places) for a loss of 13.2 SP points, and it is a similar story for the absent between one and two months gang.
Those absent for more than two months have failed to score, albeit from only a small handful of starters.
Maximum Distance Run
This is interesting. Doubtless in part due to the Programme Book - and the fact that many top class fillies would be exiting Guineas races - the record of those to have already raced at a trip beyond a mile and a quarter is relatively poor.
Despite claiming six of the 19 Oaks' in the sample period (31.5%), that has come from 43% of the runners, at a starting price loss of 47.17 units. Races such as the Lingfield Oaks Trial, the Cheshire Oaks and, more materially perhaps, the Musidora, are run at a trip beyond ten furlongs.
Those to have been restricted exclusively to ten furlongs or shorter thus far won the other 13 renewals (68.5%), from 57% of the runners. Again, Qualify's 50/1 success skews the P/L data but this group was profitable to follow.
All that said, the two groups placed in direct proportion to their runner numbers, so perhaps there's nothing in this at all!
Oaks Form Preview
Enough with the historical profile of former Oaks stars, and on to the characteristics of this year's field.
There can be little doubt that the filly with the best form is Minding. Her Moyglare and Fillies' Mile wins at the end of last season look very good form, as does her Newmarket Guineas win this term. She won the latter pair of those races by daylight, and was priced to do likewise in last Sunday's Irish 1000 Guineas.
However, on rain-softened ground against a progressive filly for whom such terrain is a pre-requisite, and having bashed herself quite badly on the starting stalls, she narrowly failed to complete a Group 1 four-timer: if Minding had an easy enough time of it at Newmarket, she most certainly did not on the Curragh. She had a bloody hard race.
Twelve days will have elapsed when/if she lines up at Epsom, and she'll have shipped for a second time in five weeks from her native Ireland. That too can take its toll.
Jet Setting showed that Minding is beatable in the right scenario so, while I don't see a filly with her form credentials, she looks very capable of being vanquished by circumstance again, for the reasons highlighted above. Oh, and by the way, she's not a gimme to stay on pedigree either.
From a punting perspective, she makes the market in a big way. Her quote of 5/4 means it's 5/1 bar one, with the next two in the betting housed in the same yard. You can then have 8/1 Turret Rocks (Jim Bolger) and 12/1 bar.
O'Brien's record in the Oaks is pretty good - he's won it five times - but he rolls a lot of dice. Indeed, since 1998, when Shahtoush won for him, he has saddled 48 Oaks runners. Only two of his runners have scored since 2006, and they were priced 50/1 and 20/1.
Ballydoyle is, erm, Ballydoyle's second choice. She got closest to Minding at Newmarket in the 1000 Guineas, but missed the Irish equivalent because of "an unsatisfactory blood count". That gives very little time for her to get right for the Oaks, making 5/1 a wholly avoidable price.
Likewise, Even Song wasn't even under serious consideration for the Oaks until very recently - she was 25/1 at the start of the month, and still 16/1 little more than a week ago. But now she is the 7/1 third choice apparently. Beaten into third in the Listed Pretty Polly Stakes on her only start this term, she is bred to be suited by the Oaks trip and to improve age. But her price is horrible.
To be clear, Ballydoyle looks like the Oaks trip should be within her compass and she has multiple top class form lines to her name. Moreover, she ran from last to second - inconvenienced along the way - when Minding had the run of things at Newmarket. She can obviously win. But her price stinks. Ditto Even Song.
The market seems utterly obsessed with the fact that, should Minding be replaced by another filly in the line up, that animal must be the de facto jolly. This is great news because it creates value - potentially at least - in the rest of the lists.
Turret Rocks is 8/1, Jim Bolger's filly seemingly having few excuses in the Guineas when beaten six and a half lengths in sixth. Stoutly bred on the dam side, I'm not totally convinced that she will stay based on her Rowley Mile capitulation, but she may have needed that first spin of the year.
Even Song aside, the trio of Minding, Ballydoyle and Turret Rocks have deeply intertwined form. There looks to be a clear hierarchy between three - in the order mentioned - based on past performance. Something would have to be different for that established pecking order to change: something like Minding being over the top after two tough runs, or Ballydoyle not being quite right.
For me, this year's Oaks has a similar feel to many others in recent times, a feel that a largely unconsidered filly can improve past the top fancies under a wildly different examination.
Skiffle is a 12/1 shot - though if you like this one you should take the 10/1 non-runner no bet with bet365, as she's not currently entered - after her taking win in a Listed trial at Goodwood. That was only her second start, her first having been just four weeks before the Oaks is due to be run. As such, inexperience is a worry, as is the fact she was held up there: such tactics at Epsom can have infamously unpredictable results. Nevertheless, she is a live challenger if being supplemented.
If Aidan O'Brien has a forgotten filly this year, then it is probably Somehow. She was all over the shop at Chester - sent off 8/15 and traded at 9/2 in running - but was well on top at the line. It is hard to know what that form is worth, but the winner is marked up in my book for getting the job done in unlikely-looking circumstances. That ability to get out of a pickle will serve her well at Epsom, should she line up. Again, the 14/1 NRNB with bet365 is more playable than the 16/1 all in run or not.
I'm not especially interested in a beaten filly from the Lingfield Oaks Trial, so Architecture is passed over, as is her narrow conqueror that day, Seventh Heaven, who is yet another from Fortress Ballydoyle.
The Musidora has a reputation for producing high class fillies, though not necessarily Oaks-winning ones. So Mi Dar, this year's clear winner, was made favourite in many lists for Epsom before absenting herself with a bout of lameness last week. Next home there was Fireglow, who had the run of the race and was slowing down rapidly by the line.
Two that were galloping on resolutely, and who just failed to wear down the second, were Promising Run and Harlequeen. The latter was immature and green, pulling for her head for half a mile, then getting outpaced and lugging up the straight; but she ran on clearly the best and would have been second in another ten yards, let alone the furlong and a half further of the Oaks trip.
I was quite taken by her effort, and backed her straight afterwards at 50/1. I've since had a bit more at 33/1. Here's why: there was no pace early in the Musidora and Mick Channon's filly expended plenty of energy failing to settle and failing to find cover as a consequence. In what should be a truly run Oaks, with a likely big field, she'll get both a quicker meter and a greater prospect of cover.
There is cause for concern from Epsom's idiosyncratic track - chalk and cheese compared to York's fair flat furlongs - but this lass is likely to stay and could have a lot more to offer if behaving more tractably in the early go. She is 25/1 everywhere, so NRNB is a free insurance policy.
Beautiful Morning is another interesting runner. Second in the same Newbury Listed race in which 2011 Oaks heroine, Dancing Rain, filled out the same position, Luca Cumani's filly had a comfortable front rank passage through that race but somehow conceded first run to We Are Ninety. She was rallying at the line, and her fifth in the 1000 Guineas reads at least as well as Turret Rocks' sixth. Beautiful Morning is 33/1 in a place.
A trainer with as many Oaks winners to his name as Aidan O'Brien - since Sir Henry's Light Shift did indeed move the beam back onto the late great horseman, at least - is Ralph 'Don't Call Me Ralf' Beckett.
Rayf plundered the spoils in 2008 with Look Here and again in 2013 with Talent. That the pair were 33/1 and 20/1 respectively gives hope to educated pin-stickers, and Kimpton's finest has three possibles this time around, all at huge prices.
Diamonds Pour Moi is the shortest of the trio at 40/1. This daughter of Derby winner, Pour Moi, has only run twice and has won no more than a Kempton maiden last backend. This season's sole start was a third place finish behind Somehow in the Cheshire Oaks, form some way short of what is needed to win the Oaks itself.
But her profile is remarkably similar to that of Look Here, who won a Salisbury maiden on her only juvenile start before being beaten in a recognised Oaks trial. The longer straight at Epsom will surely see Beckett's inexperienced filly in a better light, and she is no forlorn hope to make it three for her trainer.
It is a good bit harder to make cases for his other pair, Mountain Bell and September Stars, so I won't try.
Indeed, it is difficult to see anything else having a winning chance on the Downs, but one thing worth pointing out is that if Skiffle is a 10/1 chance 'with a run' then The Black Princess should probably not be 50/1 with the same concession.
For a start, the last named already has an entry. Further, she is quite progressive herself. Her second to Skiffle, the pair seven clear of the third, was a big step forward on a similar placing in a handicap the time before. And she looked as though she had put the race to bed at Goodwood before Skiffle's late rally cut her down.
And if you watch that race, Frankie was very easy on The Black Princess inside the last furlong. I'm not suggesting he'd have won, but he might have been beaten a neck with an all out drive. Beaten a neck and removing all chance of reversing form at Epsom. Maybe her stamina gave out - quite possible; or perhaps she thought she'd done enough on only her third lifetime start.
Put it like this: if Skiffle was not in that Height Of Fashion Stakes, and John Gosden's filly had won it by seven lengths - the gap to the horse behind her - what price would she be to win the Oaks? 10/1? If that. She may not win, or even go close, but she has to be the wrong price at 50/1 'with a run' (66/1 all in run or not, caveat emptor).
It's a great puzzle this year, and for various reasons the head of the market looks vulnerable. In that context, I'm happy to have a crack at a couple of bigger prices each way.
Harlequeen ran a fine trial with so much going wrong for her. It is possible she won't like the peaks and troughs of Epsom, too, but at 25/1 she is worth a sniff, with her stamina given license over the longer lawn.
Beautiful Morning is a more straightforward sort, and she looks likely to be front rank in the race. That should give her a solid shot of missing any scrimmaging in behind and, therefore, a legitimate shout of glory. Like Dancing Rain in 2011 (what a ride that was from 'Group 1' Johnny Murtagh), she may try to lead all the way.
And for profile punters, Diamonds Pour Moi follows the successful blueprint of former stablemate Look Here. I doubt she's good enough, but she remains thoroughly unexposed and looks sure to step forward considerably from her seasonal bow.
All three are monster prices, and all three could fall well short. Worse still, Minding might beat Ballydoyle and Turret Rocks/Even Song. If that sort of outcome transpires, I've read the 2016 Oaks all wrong. Perfectly possible, but I'm going long with three Hail Mary's, to borrow the gridiron parlance.
Each way a pleasure, naturellement.
Harlequeen 25/1 bet365 (non-runner no bet, 1/4 1-2-3)
Beautiful Morning 25/1 bet365 (non-runner no bet, 1/4 1-2-3) / 33/1 Ladbrokes all in run or not
Diamonds Pour Moi 40/1 bet365 (non-runner no bet, 1/4 1-2-3)