A week of Derby and Oaks trials has left me just as puzzled with Epsom less than three weeks away.
One thing that is becoming clear, and shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone, is the power at the disposal of both Aidan O’Brien and John Gosden. Ballydoyle have been the dominant force for more than a decade, but there’s little doubt that Gosden, assisted by the outstanding Frankie Dettori, is launching a mighty challenge in an attempt to disrupt the status quo.
O’Brien has captured three of the last five Epsom Derby’s, and has an identical recent record in the Oaks. I’ve spoke of the Galileo production line in recent articles, and the Stallion’s hoof-print is again prominent in June’s Classic contenders.
Cliffs Of Moher took the Dee Stakes at Chester for Team Ballydoyle, battling on strongly to defeat the Charlie Appleby trained Bay Of Poets. He took some time to hit top gear, but was well on top at the post, and should be suited by the step-up in trip at Epsom. He’s currently second-favourite for the Derby, though O’Brien has a battalion to choose from.
Venice Beach was another impressive winner, when landing the Chester Vase from stable companion Wings Of Eagles. Ryan Moore appeared impressed with the Colt, though his price of 20/1 for the Epsom feature, suggests he may be down the stable pecking order. Nevertheless, he proved he stays the trip and coped well with Chester’s tight turning track, giving hope that he’ll adapt well to Epsom.
The yard also has the 2000 Guineas winner heading the market for The Derby. We remain in the dark as to whether Churchill will take his chance, and a team meeting in the next week to 10 days is likely to provide further clues.
The Dante Stakes at York later this week, will give connections further food for thought, with more names thrown into the Epsom melting pot. It’s likely that O’Brien will send plenty to contest a race that he’s surprisingly not won since 2010.
O’Brien’s loss has proved to be John Gosden’s gain in recent times. Golden Horn won the Dante in 2015 prior to his Derby success. Last year it was Wings Of Desire that got the better of O’Brien’s Deauville in a thrilling finish.
The Newmarket trainer has a leading contender for Thursday’s renewal, with the Epsom Derby third- favourite Cracksman. The son of Frankel took the Epsom Derby Trial in April, getting the better of Permian and Bay Of Poets.
That form appears to put him on a par with Cliffs Of Moher, but this fella only has two career starts to his name, and ought to improve plenty for his last outing. Owner Anthony Oppenheimer will be hoping the three-year-old can emulate Golden Horn, in winning this before heading to The Downs in June.
Thursday’s race will also see the third career start for Sir Michael Stoute’s Crystal Ocean. Punters have been clambering to get on this son of Sea The Stars, and his Derby price has plummeted. In April he won a maiden at Nottingham, and the runner-up has since franked the form. This is a huge step-up in class, though he looked mightily impressive last time, and is certainly being guided by the right man.
A Gosden/O’Brien duel may also be on the cards in the Oaks. Rhododendron heads the market for Ballydoyle, but Enable proved an impressive winner of the Cheshire Oaks last week, and Gosden sees her as his most likely Epsom Classic challenger. She’s by Nathaniel out of a Sadler’s Wells mare, and looks a class act.
He also has the potentially high-class filly Shutter Speed, again owned by Khalid Abdullah, but with a pedigree that suggests the Epsom trip could take some getting. She’s due to run in the Musidora on Wednesday, with connections then having to decide on who heads to Epsom.
Much has yet to be determined, and hopefully things will become a little clearer following the Dante Meeting at York. The one certainty is the strength in depth at both O’Brien’s yard and that of John Gosden. Moore versus Dettori is a cracking sub-plot as the next Classics draw ever closer.