It's the first day of the two day 'Investec Derby Festival' meeting at Epsom, and it features the Group 1 Oaks.
The third of the five Classics to be run in the British racing calendar, The Oaks is run over a mile and a half and is for fillies only. We'll get to that in due course, but there are seven races to unravel on Friday, and some healthy looking wagers to be struck. Starting in the...
1.35 PRINCESS ELIZABETH STAKES (Group 3)
A Group 3 for fillies and mares run over a mile and half a furlong, this is normally won by a fancied runner, and every winner since 1998 was priced 7/1 or shorter. As such, most of the trends relate to that.
For instance, thirteen of the last seventeen winners were placed last time out. No horse with an official rating has won from below 100 since at least 1997, and only two unrated horses have won. The favourite has won nine of the last seventeen renewals.
The favourite is Thistle Bird, and she looks to have an outstanding chance. Winner of the race last year, she's rated 114, four pounds higher than her closest rival, and seven pounds better than the rest. She's a course and distance winner obviously, which counts for plenty here, and she seems relatively ground agnostic.
She should be able to track a nice bit of pace from Amulet and/or Butterfly McQueen, and I think she'll probably win. 3/1 or thereabouts looks perfectly fair.
Of the rest, those best placed to step up on what they've done so far, according to figures at least, are Just The Judge and Zurigha. Just The Judge was second in the 1000 Guineas last year and followed that up by winning the Irish 1000 Guineas. Although campaigned exclusively in Group 1 company last year, she was a little disappointing first time out this season a nine furlong Group 3.
If she needed that, she could step up sufficiently to trouble Thistle Bird. However, she's been beaten a combined 38 lengths in her last three runs and there's a doubt in mind whether she's the filly she was. On balance, I'll pass.
Zurigha represents the red hot Hannon-Hughes axis, and they just love a bit of Epsom glory. Since 2009, they've enjoyed 13 winners and another 16 placed horses from 72 runners. Zurigha is lightly raced, with just eight starts to her name, and she's won half of those races. But she was whacked last time out over nine furlongs and, even allowing for that potentially stretching her stamina, it was a poor run.
Besides which, it's not much less than that here (1oo yards or so), and she's been well beaten on each of her three tries above Listed class.
Mango Diva looks the biggest danger to Thistle Bird. Progressive last back end, she was doing all her best work late on when held up off a steady pace at York. That she finished a four and a half length fourth there was creditable, and she looks a typical Sir Michael Stoute improver with age. Ryan Moore driving is never a negative, and she looks a very solid each way play.
For those looking for a longshot - not especially advised in this race - Amulet should race prominently, and she's come a long way from winning a Class 5 handicap last Autumn, to claiming a fair Class 2 handicap last time out. This is two grades higher, and she ought not to be good enough but, favoured by the run of the race she could hang tough enough to steal a slice of the place money.
Selection: Thistle Bird
Danger: Mango Diva
Best Outsider: Amulet
2.10 1m2f Handicap
Ostensibly a very competitive handicap, and it might pay to side with course form. To that end, the nine year old Resurge won this race in 2011 and again last year. He's four pounds lower now and, while a question remains about what ability he retains, he obviously loves Epsom's slopes (four course and distance wins in total) and 10/1 in a couple of places ought to offer punters a run for their money.
Sennockian Star and Charles Camoin are the other two course and distance winners. The former was a winner here three starts back, but has paid the price for that, now racing off a six pounds higher mark. Still, he was second on his only other run at the course, and should get a nice draft into the race.
Charles Camoin has skidded a fair way in the handicap since his last victory in June 2013 at Ascot. He's off a two pound lower perch this time than that scoring run, but even with the services of Jamie Spencer, I'm not that keen on his chances.
Ignoring course form and casting the net wider, the big potential improver is Ralph Beckett's Air Pilot. From just three runs to date he's yet to be worse than second, though it did take all three attempts to win his maiden, a mile and a half affair at Thirsk. Stamina, thus, will not be a problem for this fellow, and the form of those two seconds is extremely solid.
On the first occasion he ran to within a head of a multiple French winner at Chantilly. Then, on British debut, he was bested only by Clever Cookie, who dead heated in a Listed race last time and is now rated 107. Clearly, then, an opening handicap rating of just 83 could be lenient, and trainer Beckett has scored a number of high profile wins on this piste. Jimmy Quinn doesn't get that many top race opportunities these days, but he rarely fails when called in to deputize, and Air Pilot must go close.
Andrew Balding's Epsom record is excellent, and he and David Probert have a 53% strike rate when teaming up here since 2009. That was highly profitable for punters, so their Soviet Rock demands respect. On form, he ran a blinding trial when swooping round the Lingfield turn to win a ten furlong handicap there four weeks ago. He'll have been laid out for this, and he too can be expected to be thereabouts from a prominent in-running position.
Tres Coronas is probably high enough in the weights just now, after a win at Chester and a close second to Clever Cookie at York but, on a line through that one, he's giving Air Pilot a heck of a lot of weight (around a stone and a half). Of course, that's a literal interpretation, but even a rough guesstimate would suggest Air Pilot should be able to beat Tres Coronas at the weights.
Farraaj is interesting too, assuming this one has nothing to do with UKIP. He's spent most of his career running in Group races, and dropped to handicap class for the first time last time out. He was an unlucky fifth of nineteen there, not beaten far, and should come on for that seasonal debut. The distance should be spot on and, as a winner in Listed and Group 3 company once rated 108, his mark of 102 could see him involved.
As with most handicaps I preview, it's perfectly plausible that I haven't mentioned the winner.
In summary then, Soviet Rock has a lot in his favour, but is too short for me in a race like this; Tres Coronas is high enough in the weights and has a lot to find with Air Pilot if that one can improve even close to as much as Clever Cookie has; Farraaj becomes more tempting the more the ground dries out; and, Resurge and Sennockian Star could remind us of their course prowess.
I'm leaning tentatively towards Air Pilot and Farraaj, though there are - as you'll have gathered - many dangers.
Tentative two against the field: Farraaj and Air Pilot
2.45 DIOMED STAKES (Group 3)
Although open to both sexes, this is essentially the male equivalent of the opening Princess Elizabeth Stakes: a Group 3 run over a mile and half a furlong.
As with the girls' race, last time out placers do extremely well, with fourteen of the last seventeen winners having made the frame the last day. Surprisingly, that includes some bigger priced horses, and backing all horses to have been first, second or third last time would have netted a profit of 47.75 units.
With all seven of this year's field rated within eight pounds of each other, it's a pretty tight race in which tactics could play a part.
Gregorian is the highest rated and the favourite. He won the race last year, so we know he acts here, and ran exclusively in higher class thereafter. This represents a drop in grade then and, being a horse that goes well fresh, he looks a likely winner once more.
He could be given a lead, and most to do, by Graphic, William Haggas' improving five year old. Indeed, despite his age, he has elevated the handicapper's opinion of him by twenty pounds in his last five runs, and may not be done yet. The irrepressible Ryan Moore rides, and he'll make it very tough for Buick and Gregorian to get past.
The fly in Graphic's ointment might be if Penitent insists on taking him on for the lead early. A massive priced winner of a Group 3 at Haydock last Saturday, Penitent is a tough and consistent campaigner. He got closest to Gregorian in this last year, but I suspect he'll have to concede rank to younger legs this time around.
French Navy also ticks a lot of boxes and is just four pounds inferior to Gregorian on official figures. He won a fortnight ago, and will benefit from any potential speed duel early. I think he probably wants it a little softer though and, with others ideally suited by good ground, he's overlooked.
Andrew Balding won this with Side Glance two years ago and saddles Highland Knight this time. He's an in and out customer, and despite finishing second and first in the 2011 and 2012 runnings of the Investec Mile, I would be surprised if he could beat all comers here.
3.20 INVESTEC MILE HANDICAP
The aforementioned Investec Mile, which is actually run over half a furlong further than a mile. A full field of sixteen are scheduled to face the starter, and things will almost certainly change rapidly in the final furlong as the leaders gasp for air trying to fend off so many Johnny-Come-Lately's.
9/4 is an absurd price about a horse in a sixteen runner handicap on a quirky strip, but that's what we're being offered on Abseil's chance. Still more striking is that Abseil has been a finisher in his three starts to date, and may be depending on a biblical parting of an equine sea as numerous nags lug inwards on the camber late in the play. 9/4 you say? Good luck with that project.
Before we move on, let me clarify: Abseil has an excellent form chance. But he offers no value with so many obstacles to overcome. If he wins, fair play. I'll have lost my cash. So who to side with against him?
Vainglory won this last year off the same rating as he has now, but at ten he's unlikely to have the legs of some of these. He does like this track, though. Another who seems to run perennially well here is Dance And Dance, and he looks a reasonable bet against the favourite. Winner of this race in 2011, he was then second in the Group 3 Diomed over the same course and distance the following year. That leaves a gap of two years, during which time he's rattled the crossbar on numerous occasions without winning.
This will be Dance And Dance's first appearance at the track since that Diomed second, and he's now rated six pounds below that last win and fully nineteen pounds below his last winning mark. He comes here in good form after a short head second last time, and will love the ground. With a middle draw and a versatile run style, he won't want for support from the stirrup either, as that micro-powerhouse Jimmy Fortune does the pushing and shoving.
There is a lot of pace on in here. Any or all of Tigers Tale, Henry The Aviator, Busatto, Trail Blaze and Spirit Of The Law could try to get to the front, and that means there is an above average prospect of a burn up early doors. That in turn means the prospect of a pace collapse and something coming from off the pace to collar the lot of 'em.
It could be Abseil, of course, and it could be Dance And Dance. And it could be one of a fair few others. Chief amongst them from a form perspective might be Llanarmon Lad, a lightly raced chap from the Ellison camp. Kieren Fallon will kick and cajole and, though winning a Class 4 last time gives him plenty to find, he's unexposed and his trainer rarely comes south for the weather.
Ryan Moore's mount, Fury, is a dozen pounds lower than when last winning and, if not gone at the game, has plenty in his favour. He likes to be ridden handily but not on the speed, so could be best placed to weave betwixt the faders if rediscovering a hint of the élan that helped him win a Listed handicap this time two years ago. He's had little racing in between and he was sent off favourite for the aforementioned Listed race last time.
It is of course a fiendishly difficult punting puzzle, with Abseil the coward's way out. He can win, no question, but I prefer Dance And Dance at an each way price. There are currently sixteen runners, though it is inevitable that something will absent meaning only three places for us win/place players.
Each way against the favourite: Dance And Dance
4.00 INVESTEC OAKS (Group 1)
I previewed this race here, and while both Marsh Daisy and Honor Bound have been supplemented, I'm happy enough to take a chance at a price about Madame Chiang. She's unbeaten, won't mind a touch of juice in the ground, stays well, and won one of the best trials. It's easy enough to pick holes in the quality of that trial this year, but then it's easy enough to find a negative for every runner in a race like this. At 14/1 she looks great each way value.
Ihtimal has become a backable price each way, especially with the firms offering four places (bet365 and Coral), where she's a top priced 9/1 with the sponsor.
Selection: Madame Chiang
Each way alternative: Ihtimal (four places)
4.45 SURREY STAKES (Listed Race)
A seven furlong Listed race for three year olds, and one where all of the winners to have a rating were awarded at least 99 since 1999. That counts a couple of this field out, with a quartet rated in the right zone.
The form of That Is The Spirit's maiden win has worked out really well, and this unbeaten son of Invincible Spirit looks a solid jolly, despite having an official peg of 99, right on the historical minimum. In fairness to him, he's got plenty of scope to improve after just two runs - both wins - and his dominant win in a big field last time was impressive.
Against him, Parbold is dropping back down the ratings, having been as high as 111. Still on 109, he's found it very hard to win, since a debut maiden win seven runs back. He has ability, but just seems to get outpaced in his races. He might benefit from a step up to a mile, despite breeding suggesting he won't get it.
He was beaten two starts back by the re-opposing Coulsty, and this chap looks like the biggest danger to the favourite. He's tough and consistent, and can give Parbold four pounds and a beating. Whether he can do the same to That Is The Spirit, I doubt, but he looks forecast material.
Miracle Of Medinah probably hasn't trained on, but he won a Listed and a Group 3 last year, both at massive prices, and there will be worse 25/1 shots on the card this afternoon.
Selection: That Is The Spirit
5.20 7f Handicap
We close with a fifteen runner seven furlong handicap and if there's one thing to say about this race, it is that at least we know we're only getting three places!
There seems to be less early in this event than the previous big field handicap, and it might be that a horse can get a fairly easy time of it on the front despite the volume of rivals. That one might be the consistent Lincoln, who will be bidding to improve on a record of three straight silver medals.
The truth of it is that Lincoln is an expensive horse to follow, with no less than half of his fourteen career starts culminating in silver, including in a course and distance maiden.
Mime Dance is an interesting contender for Andrew Balding. Having completed a set of podium positions in three runs over course and distance last year, the son of Notnowcato appeared not to stay the extended mile here last time. Dropping back to this trip gives him a fine chance of making the frame once more, with conditions in his favour. A step up in grade is mitigated by a light weight and, while that's not the most reliable wagering strategy overall, it may bear fruit here.
Another to catch my eye is Art Official, a course and distance winner. He's dropped back to a handy mark - just a pound higher than his last win - and he returns to terra firmer after three runs on unsuitably soft turf. 14/1 looks all right.
There are of course many others with chances, and the best advice is to back your fancy for small money, safe in the knowledge that there's another septet of races on Derby day. Good luck!
Tentative two against the field: Mime Dance and Art Official