Epsom's two day early June fixture includes three Group 1's, the jewel in the crown of which is the Derby. Friday's card features the Group 1 Oaks, supported by a Group 3, two Listed races and a pair of handicaps.
It's competitive fare from the get-go, with the going likely to be on the easy side of good to soft, beginning with the six furlong Woodcote Stakes at two o'clock.
2.00 Woodcote Stakes (Listed, 6f, 2yo)
A good race in which to bet on an 'on, as messrs. Hann-on (Sr. and Jr.), Chann-on and Johnst-on have collectively taken nine of the last fourteen renewals of the race. All three are represented by a single runner in the seven strong field.
Mark Johnston, winner of two of the last five Woodcotes, saddles the unbeaten Sea Of Snow. Her two wins so far have both been over five furlongs, but her pedigree suggests middle distances. By US dirt sire, Distorted Humor, the soft ground may be against Johnston's filly.
Richard Hannon won this in 2014 and brings Legendary Lunch for a rematch with Sea Of Snow. The son of Dragon Pulse was failing to justify odds of 1-5 when messed about a touch in his run and staying on well. There should again be little between them on past form, but the Lunch might be better suited to juice in the turf.
Mick Channon won this with 12/1 Chilworth Icon in 2012, and he has a similarly priced contender in Sayesse. The most experienced in the field, with three prior runs, this cheaply bought son of first season sire, Sayif, has won his last two. He was all at sea on heavy ground on debut, but has since won twice over six furlongs on good to firm turf. He's fairly interesting at a price, if he acts on the ground.
One who should go fine on the soft side is Hyperfocus, a son of Intense Focus, who won on good to soft on his debut. A five length win will have caught the eye of many - he's 3/1 second favourite in the early betting - but it's worth keeping in mind that horses from that race have run eight times subsequently without making the frame between them. That includes every single one of his seven rivals.
If Hyperfocus's form looks suspect, Tibr's does not. Ed Dunlop trains this winner of one from one, a good ground Lingfield novice stakes that has thrown up subsequent wins for the second and fourth placed horses. Another son of Distorted Humor, the same ground-based concerns are relevant here - perhaps more so, given the dam is a daughter of another US dirt influence, Bernardini.
I don't think David Barron has ever had a juvenile runner at Epsom - not since before 2003 at least - so the fact he sends Danielsflyer south speaks highly of his Dandy Man colt. Second on his racecourse bow over five at Southwell, he went a placing better over a furlong further on softish ground at Ayr on his most recent start.
It's a very tricky opener with doubts based on breeding about many of them. As such, it might be worth taking a flyer with the 'flyer, Danielsflyer, at around 14/1.
I'll personally be trying to get through the placepot, and will also be attempting to get a shock result with just the seven runners. That should ensure the favourite wins!
The below "new customer" offer from Betbright will give you £40 worth of bets for a tenner, which isn't terrible if you're betting at Epsom today...!!
2.35 1m2f Handicap (Class 2, 4yo+)
Just ten runners but a competitive field, headed by Group 3 regular and last year's second, Fire Fighting. He looks weighted up to the hilt against some progressive sorts, most notably Dark Red.
Dark Red is a second solid chance in as many races for the resurgent Ed Dunlop, and the four year old can already boast a course and distance success on soft ground. He was value for further than the neck verdict at Chester last time and ought to make a bold bid for the four-timer.
What About Carlo has won twice over course and distance, including on heavy ground, but he tends to get too far early these days to represent an attractive proposition.
The likes of Master Of Finance, Sennockian Star, Pasaka Boy, and Imshivalla all have form here with the last named of minor interest at around 20/1 from stall one. But it's very hard to get away from the claims of DARK RED, for whom the booking of Ryan Moore is yet another positive, and 11/4 might be a smidge on the big side.
3.10 Diomed Stakes (Group 3, 1m 1/2f, 3yo+)
A very good race for the grade, with five of the eleven entries rated 110+. The top of the ratings pops is Arod, winner of the contest last year. His style is straightforward and well suited to these plains: get out fast, stay out. Stall eight is not ideal for the job, mind, especially with Sea Of Flames and Custom Cut inside, both of whom like to race on or close to the speed. But then, stall six of seven was sub-optimal last year, too.
Arod is classy - he was fourth in Australia's Derby, and made Solow work very hard in last year's Sussex Stakes. He might just have needed his first run of the year when a little disappointing in third at Ascot, but that will have put him spot on for a solid defence of his Diomed title. 3/1 seems ever so slightly generous - I'd have him closer to 5/2 or 9/4 - despite the draw. Potentially tacky ground could make it harder for his pursuers to get by.
Custom Cut is a busy boy who will be having his fourth start of the season already in this. He's been beaten at least three lengths in each of that trio - races which haven't worked out brilliantly - and it might be that at seven his ability is beginning to wane. He's not showing enough to interest me at this stage, though his best form stakes him a claim.
Mindurownbusiness has done most of his running - and winning - on the all weather, where he's looked a classy sort. On turf, he did win here in 2014, albeit on good to firm, a going description that has accompanied each of his quartet of grass runs. Softer than good must be a question mark in that context.
Roger Charlton's Decorated Knight has less miles on the clock than most of these - just 8.63 to be roughly precise (oxymoron alert) - and was a cosy winner in Listed company over ten furlongs last time. This step back in range is not certain to favour him, however, with his mile victories coming in maiden and Class 3 handicap company. Still, he's a likeable sort with more upside than most.
Ryan Moore is a striking booking for David Nicholls' Sovereign Debt. Another battle-hardened soldier in this field, he's placed on twelve of his eighteen attempts at distances between a mile and nine furlongs. But he's won just twice. Even the Moore magic can't make odds of around 6/1 enticing. I'd expect a more prominent early position than is often the case with Sovereign Debt, however.
Tullius has given his Kennet Valley syndicate a million (well, 34) great days out, contesting some of the biggest races down the years. He ran in the Coral-Eclipse and the Champion Stakes last term, and also finished fourth in this race behind Arod. Two fair runs when the Balding stable was still revving its seasonal engine set him up nicely for a crack at the Diomed, and he seems more versatile than many in terms of going and trip.
At a bigger price, around 25/1 as I write, Celestial Path deserves a second glance. A winner of his first two juvenile starts he then ran third in the Group 1 Racing Post Trophy behind Elm Park. That promise was confirmed with a fifth place finish in Gleneagles' 2000 Guineas last spring before injury confined Sir Mark Prescott's high class colt to two just two middling back-end runs.
A 2016 pipe-opener in Germany three weeks ago was a decent start for a chap who has the 'back class' to be competitive in this field. This will be only his eighth career start, and the price justifies a small each way interest.
In summary, the Diomed is a trappy race where 3/1 AROD is marginally over-priced without being an outstanding win proposition. At bigger prices, both Tullius (8/1) and Celestial Path (25/1) could outrun their odds.
3.45 Investec Mile Handicap (Class 2, 1m 1/2f, 4yo+)
A mile and half a furlong is the trip for the Investec Mile - I guess Investec just can't help going the extra yard(s). A dozen runners are slated to face the starter, with bundles of early pace in the field.
Any or all of Cordite, Bold Prediction, Instant Attraction, Dutch Uncle, Spring Offensive and Persun could contest the early fractions so, while it is not the general rule at Epsom, things could change dramatically in the last furlong.
Luck in running is another important factor in races of this nature, and it might be that a wide-drawn patiently-ridden pony picks up the pieces. The two to fit that bill most snugly are Fieldsman and Jack's Revenge, trained by a pair of George's - Scott and Baker respectively.
Fieldsman would be a big winner for rookie handler Scott, who was assistant to Lady Cecil last term. No more than ticking over last season when in the care of Ed Dunlop, the four-year-old son of Hard Spun won over seven furlongs at Newmarket in a big field with a last ditch rally - exactly the sort of run style that could steal the pot here. But stamina is a worry over this furlong and a half longer trip, as is the ground.
Jack's Revenge, in contrast, has won over further and on softer. Now eight, he completed a half-century of races with a short head defeat over a mile at Newmarket the day before Fieldsman went one better. Interestingly (perhaps), none of those fifty races were at Epsom, but his sole helter-skelter track run at Brighton was a win - by fifteen lengths.
Jack has been a more regular visitor to the similarly undulating (ups and) Downs at Goodwood, where he's made the frame in four of six starts, including at Glorious Goodwood in 2012 and 2013. Connections opted for the clashing meeting at Galway in 2014 and 2015, where Jack ran creditably but off the board both times. He's become brutally hard to win with - 33 beaten efforts and counting - and that's the main reason to look elsewhere.
A late runner drawn mid-pack is Melvin The Grate, ridden by Geegeez-sponsored jockey, David Probert. Not quite as frustrating as Jack's Revenge, Melvin has only won once from 16 turf starts (four more on all weather), and that is a worry straight away.
But plenty of races don't play as well to his strengths as this one will, and conditions look tailor made. As mentioned, the Kingsclere team are in good form so, granted luck in the run, this chap will go close.
If the speed does hold out, Persun might be interesting. Mick Channon's charge was a course and distance winner last September and, while stall eleven is tricky for his normal run style, Luke Morris will eke out everything from his mount. Good to soft would be fine for his chance, too.
A very hard race to call with Melvin The Grate (8/1) receiving a tentative nod. Placed in half of his 16 turf starts, but a winner of just one, his record tells the tale of a hold up horse in search of a fast pace. He gets that setup here, which gives him a better than usual chance.
The feature on day one is the Investec Oaks, the third Classic of the season, and the second fillies' Classic. Minding, winner of the first - the 1000 Guineas - bids to double up having narrowly failed to scalp the Irish 1000 Guineas in between times.
Much has been made of Minding's busy schedule - including by me in this Oaks Preview - but not quite so much has been said about her questionable stamina for the task. By Galileo, she's out of Lillie Langtry, a dual Group 1-winning race mare at a mile, but who never raced beyond that trip in spite of a stout pedigree on her own dam's side.
On form, she is a class apart. But this is a race full of later blooming - and potentially more robustly-bred - fillies, so taking odds-on is not for me.
I pinned my hopes to Harlequeen and Diamonds Pour Moi - as well as the absent Beautiful Morning - and am happy to sit on those big-priced vouchers in a race which has gone the way of a supposed 'rag' in five of the last eight years. That quintet of winners since 2008 were all 20/1 or bigger at the off.
5.15 Surrey Stakes (Listed, 7f, 3yo)
A race for those probably not good enough for the Jersey Stakes at Royal Ascot in a couple of weeks time, the jolly is Haalick who, funnily enough, might have been better suited to the withering pace that normally underpins that race. His hold up style has seen him not quite get there the last twice, much to the frustration of his backers; but, as I often say, if you back this type of horse you get what you get...
He's capable and is sure to run on well in a field often comprised of horses that haven't gone on from two to three.
This is a race I really don't like, full of intangible form lines and lower Pattern-aspirant impostors. (Apologies to any readers who own a runner!)
Scrutineer has fair form, achieved this season, and will run close to the pace. That makes him a sure fire shortlist candidate. Ignoring his outclassed run in the Group 1 Criterium International last autumn, he's been quietly progressive in four starts either side of that ferry crossing.
A nine length maiden win was followed by a six length handicap verdict, which entitled connections to dream of Gallic G1 glory. Sights lowered on his 2016 reappearance, Scrutineer was a close second in the Listed European Free Handicap, before a close third in the Listed Charles II Stakes.
It is possible that the ground was a little on the fast side for him at Newmarket that last day which, if true, gives him leading claims and makes 4/1 the best bet in the race. Not a great bet overall, you understand, but an acceptable one in this contest.
Softish ground could see Make Fast get competitive, and Smuggler's Moon has potential to be better than his mark, something he'd need to be to win.
A very unattractive wagering proposition with the lesser of so many evils being Scrutineer at around 9/2.
5.50 7f Handicap (Class 2, 3yo)
A late finish and a trappy heat. Harry Champion is a half brother to two horses running in the geegeez.co.uk colours, Nonagon and Table Manners. Both of that pair are at their best with give in the ground, so it could be that the presumed ease here will enable Harry to step forward on just his fifth career start.
I understand from our Sunday/Monday correspondent, Tony Stafford, whose day job is racing manager to Harry Champion's owner, Raymond Tooth, that this chap had a very bad back when all but winning at Wolverhampton in December. He's right again now, and with Josephine Gordon whipping off another five pounds, he has no weight on his back.
Simon Crisford won this race last year with a similarly progressive sort to Happy Call, and that looks a hint to this one's chance. The son of Kodiac has yet to race on softer than good, but should thrive for the extra furlong.
Richard Hannon's Storm Rising has an obvious chance, which is factored into his sub-3/1 price. The drop back to seven furlongs looks a reasonable strategy in spite of his sire's surprising general influence for stamina, and this is a race in which the Hannon family have done well down the years.
I'll be having a small bet on Harry Champion, out of loyalty as much as anything else, at odds close to 10/1. These early season three-year-old handicaps are really not my thing.