The Epsom Classics are less than a month away, and the past week has held plenty of clues for both the Oaks and the Derby.
Bathed in glorious sunshine, the May Festival at Chester gave several classic contenders the opportunity to advertise their Epsom credentials. With news arriving that Guineas winner Galileo Gold would stick to shorter trips, others had the chance to state their claims as serious Derby challengers.
The Chester Vase remains a leading trial and a race dominated by Ballydoyle. This week was no different when US Army Ranger defeated stable companion Port Douglas, with the remainder of the field out of sight. The winner had been installed as Derby favourite and arrived at Chester with a huge reputation. His controversial victory was therefore somewhat underwhelming, with many, myself included, believing that team tactics ensured his narrow victory.
US Army Ranger was having only his second career start, and is entitled to improve a ton for the experience. Ballydoyle clearly think a lot of the colt, and O’Brien’s rather ‘prickly’ post-race interview with Nick Luck on Channel 4 suggests the team were rather disappointed with the Epsom Derby favourite, but also that O’Brien is annoyed at having the quality of his colts questioned.
Despite the rather lukewarm reaction to the Chester Vase result, O’Brien’s pair slaughtered the opposition, with the also-rans including Biodynamic. He’d previously finished a close third to John Gosden’s Linguistic at Newmarket. That colt came out and ran another solid race when just failing to get up in the Dee Stakes at Chester. Such form-lines can’t always be relied upon, but the performances suggest that O’Brien’s Derby contenders are a fair bit better than some would suggest.
With other work commitments ruining my weekend, I’m having to put this piece together during Sunday morning, and am therefore unable to comment on the Derrinstown Stud Derby Trial at Leopardstown, which could see further success for Ballydoyle. It looks a hugely competitive field with talented colts from Bolger, Weld and Hannon also entered.
At Lingfield on Saturday the Betfred Derby Trial went to Richard Hannon’s Humphrey Bogart. He had previously come-off second best to John Gosden’s Oaks hopeful So Mi Dar at Epsom with the Dee Stakes winner Viren’s Army back in third. This was another decent performance, though it’s hard to believe he has what it takes to win the Derby.
Nevertheless, Hannon was clearly thrilled with the performance saying: “We've learned a lot here. In the first place I didn't think he'd get a mile and a quarter, which he did at Epsom, and I definitely didn't think he'd get a mile and a half, which he has. He settled well and Sean gave him a lovely ride. He definitely handles the track, but whether he's good enough I don't know. We'll sleep on it, but we are delighted with today.”
The victory did pay a huge compliment to Oaks contender So Mi Dar, and the bookies reacted by cutting her odds for the fillies classic, with Paddy Power going 6-1 from 7’s.
Other fillies made an impact during the week, and again the boys from Ballydoyle were making more waves than most. Somehow took the Cheshire Oaks on Wednesday, thereby adding her name to an already powerful looking O’Brien team. He now has five of the top six in the market for the big one at Epsom, including the short-priced favourite Minding after her Guineas romp.
Somehow was pushed all the way by Charles Hills gorgeous looking filly Moorside. Ryan Moore felt that ‘greeness’ was a problem for the favourite, and said: “I always felt she was going to do enough, I'm very, very pleased. She was just green, she's inexperienced and she'd won a Leopardstown maiden. Better ground, and round here, it's a different kettle of fish.”
O’Brien said of the win: “Ryan gave her a marvellous ride and taught her plenty. She's still half asleep. I bring them here to try and sharpen their minds. It's good for the lazy ones, it just wakes them up.”
Of the runner-up Hills said: “That was a very good run. We have always liked her a lot. She ran a good race first time then probably went a bit weak on us and she got beaten next time. We will have a look to see whether we go for a maiden or the Ribblesdale, that could be a target.” Though the Oaks appears to be off the radar, this strapping filly has the potential to be something special later in the campaign.
Attention turned to Lingfield on Saturday, when yet another from the O’Brien battalion put her best foot forward. Seventh Heaven edged out the Hugo Palmer trained filly Architecture in a thrilling finish.
Moore spoke of this latest classy filly from Ballydoyle, saying: “She didn't like the ground or the track and she's still won. She's a good filly and she'll have learned plenty.” Paul Smith, representing Coolmore added: “She fought well and stayed. She'd have to be in the mix and she'll definitely be kept for the top races. We've got some lovely fillies this year and she's up there. The Oaks wouldn't be a definite at this stage but she'll have to come into consideration as this is usually a strong trial.”
Paddy Power reacted by cutting her to 20-1 from 33’s for the Oaks. Palmer’s runner-up looks likely to head to Epsom, with the trainer saying: “What Fran loved was how balanced she was and how beautifully she handled the cambers. The lovely thing about Lingfield is that it's as close to Epsom as you can get, without the horrors that Epsom can provide. She's got the entry, and is a filly we've always liked, so we'll work towards it. If she doesn't get home or isn't good enough there are plenty of options.”
With York’s Dante Meeting on the horizon, the Classic picture is set for further fine-tuning. Stoute, Gosden and O’Brien are set to unleash outstanding equine talent, which includes one of the leading fancies for the Epsom Derby, Khalid Abdullah’s Midterm. Chances are that he will prove one of the main challengers to Ballydoyle when we gather at ‘The Downs’ in June.