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Flat Season Q1 Review: Girls On Top…

Anthem one to follow in Q2 of the flat season

Anthem one to follow in Q2 of the flat season?

Quarter Season Review: Taking the Temperature of the Flat Season

It depends who you listen to of course, writes Tony Keenan, but general murmurings suggest it has been a tepid start to the flat season, its first two months prompting more mehs than yeahs.

There might be some gender bias at play there as while we lack a great white colt just yet – Gleneagles has staked early claims to that status while the Derby and/or Royal Ascot could throw something up – we might have a golden crop of Irish fillies that have yet to receive the credit they deserve.

There were signs of this last year as Irish juveniles won races like the May Hill, Rockfel, Fillies’ Mile and Prix Marcel Boussac, but Timeform’s end-of-season ratings suggested little out of the ordinary. Of their top 100 juveniles, eight were fillies trained in Ireland which was in line with previous seasons, there being seven, six and eight such fillies in each of 2013, 2012 and 2011. Not exactly the signpost of something out of the ordinary, then.

Let’s take a quick run-through of those eight top fillies from last year and their Timeform ratings:

  • Anthem Alexander – 116p
  • Found – 115p
  • Lucida – 112
  • Raydara – 110p
  • Together Forever – 108
  • Agnes Stewart – 107
  • Jack Naylor – 104
  • Qualify – 104
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Their achievements so far as three-year-olds have been impressive. Anthem Alexander won more than the margin suggests at Naas on Monday, ridden with the next day in mind and goes to the Commonwealth Cup with a leading chance. Found has been a shade disappointing but only in the sense that she was a winter Guineas favourite that failed to land a classic, arguably unlucky in the Curragh equivalent. Lucida was a close second at Newmarket. Raydara was eleventh in the Irish 1,000 Guineas on her seasonal debut but was found to be in season. Together Forever emerged the best filly at the weights in the Musidora while her immediate victim in the Fillies’ Mile Agnes Stewart hasn’t run since. Jack Naylor was a huge sectional eye-catcher on her Curragh return while Qualify has been a disaster.

But as substantial as those achievements have been, it’s the fillies that didn’t make the list that really jump out, namely Legatissimo and Pleascach, the 1,000 Guineas winners that won no more than maidens last year. This is the depth of the crop and one of the most interesting features is how the ten top fillies (the eight listed above plus the two classic winners) are spread across a variety of trainers; Aidan O’Brien has three, Jim Bolger and Eddie Lynam two, one each for Jessica Harrington (who also has Bocca Baciata), David Wachman and Mick Halford.

This means that these fillies must clash which is good for racing. This is no Willie Mullins situation where his top mares like Quevega and Annie Power swerve tough competition to retain unbeaten records at odds that turn punters off. Instead these fillies take each other on and likely will continue to do so through 2015 which will provide more watchable racing and I fully expect them to dominate the older generation of mares.

Already this season we have had Lucida vs. Legatissimo in the English Guineas and Found vs. Pleascach vs. Jack Naylor vs. Raydara in the Irish Guineas amongst others with the prospect of Legatissimo vs. Jack Naylor vs. Together Forever in the Oaks to come. Perming the Irish fillies in forecasts and tricasts for that race may not be a bad idea.

And so to the Irish – essentially the Ballydoyle – colts; do I really have to write about this lot? In fairness to Gleneagles, he has been everything hoped for and more, putting up a big figure at Newmarket before overcoming adversity up the Curragh. Highland Reel was better last time but everything else has been a mess.

At the end of 2014, Aidan O’Brien had ten colts rated 110 or higher by Timeform and an absolute stranglehold on the Epsom Derby judging by betting markets, the bar set high even by his standards. Now he has a pair of workmanlike trial winners in Hans Holbein and Kilimanjaro along with Giovanni Canaletto, a horse that seems more hype and head carriage than anything else.

After a series of disappointing trial results, there were rumours that Gleneagles and/or Found could go for the Derby, the Coolmore partners seemingly driven by Federico Tesio’s famous words about the Epsom winning posts or similar such thinking. An outbreak of sanity eventually took hold and in the words of the song, they knew when to ‘fold ‘em.’

There was little point in risking a speedy miler in a race that could ruin him and Gleneagles can do plenty to burnish his stallion prospects around the trip he competes over now while the filly Found, for all that she comes from a hot crop, simply didn’t do enough on her last start to suggest she was up to winning a Derby. Though money has come recently for Giovanni Canaletto that seems more to do with Ryan Moore taking the ride than any meaningful chance he has in the race and O’Brien seems to have written off the Derby for 2015. Unless some freak renewal occurs – not impossible but unlikely – this year’s Derby looks set to be a Leger trialling ground for Ballydoyle. Given the context, that seems eminently sensible.

I had planned on concluding with this piece by mentioning a few trainers that have started the season on the cold list but the last two weeks have been kind to Eddie Lynam (four winners since May 22nd including a double at Naas on Monday) and Andy Oliver (a pair of winners in the last seven days); the form of the Lynam yard is particularly notable with Royal Ascot on the horizon.

It might instead be worth pointing out a trainer that is not so much on the cold list – he is having winners – but who on the decline, one that may be terminal, and this is something that makes me sad as it is John Oxx. Oxx has had six winners this current flat season – four maidens and two handicaps – and only one of those came at a track (Leopardstown) that could be described as a premier venue; the others came at Navan, Limerick, Fairyhouse and Sligo (twice).

He has had just one runner in a Listed or Group race in 2015 and looking at the numbers since the start of 2013 that isn’t the greatest surprise: from that year through to present, he is 4/62 in Listed and Group races in Ireland, a strikerate of 6.4%, having been 98/612 (strikerate of 16%) in the previous decade. The move of the Aga Khan horses away from Oxx – arguably through no fault of his own – has had a massive effect on the trainer’s numbers and while there were rumours of the green and red silks being back at Curraghbeg, there have been no such signs lately, the last Oxx/Aga Khan runner being Kadayma at Dundalk last November. Sad times indeed.

- Tony Keenan

2015 Oaks Preview, Trends, Tips, Pace

Can O'Brien add to his four Oaks wins?

Can O'Brien add to his four Oaks wins?

2015 Oaks Preview, Trends, Tips, Pace

Friday will see the third of the five British Classics come and go, as Epsom stages the 238th running of the Oaks. Contested over ten yards further than a mile and a half, and on one of the most helter-skelter pistes in the world, the Oaks is a test of a filly's class, stamina and balance without peer.

This year's race looks set to feature 1000 Guineas winner Legatissimo, trained in Ireland by David Wachman, against a slew of improvers, headed by Sir Michael Stoute's Crystal Zvezda.

 

Investec Oaks Trends

15 of the last 18 Oaks winners (83%) finished first or second last time out. That was from 62.8% of the runners. Of the three who didn't, two were trained by Aidan O'Brien (Shahtoush, Was), and two had finished in the top six in the 1000 Guineas (Shahtoush, Casual Look).

Seven of the 19 favourites (including joint-favourites) since 1997 have won this, for a level stakes profit of 4.66 points. I include this to highlight that the market's view of the best filly is often accurate; and, at Group 1 level, I'd consider this to be more material than your average Class 5 handicap.

Testament to the progressive nature of many winners, it may be interesting to note that of the ten Oaks winners since 1997 to come to the race with an official rating, only three were rated above 107. Fillies have won the Oaks off perches of 94, 96 and 99 in the last eight years, and all of them at 20/1 or bigger.

Each of that trio (Look Here, Dancing Rain and Talent) was very lightly raced (two or three runs) and had yet to be out of the first three.

 

Investec Oaks Pace Profile

It is often dangerous to be too bullish about the pace shape of any race, but especially so when so many of the horses are stepping up in trip and/or yet to establish a run style preference.

Nevertheless, the below image does offer some insights:

2015 Investec Oaks Pace Profile

2015 Investec Oaks Pace Profile

 

Geegeez Gold scores each run from a pace perspective on a scale of 1 to 4:

1 - held up, in rear, etc
2 - mid-division, etc
3 - prominent, etc
4 - Led, pressed leader, etc

The figures are based on in-running comments and, as such, are indicative rather than precise. Despite this lack of hard science, they serve very well from a visualization perspective.

The Oaks field (note, Found will not run) has been sorted by total score. This seems to indicate that Star Of Seville, who has led in two of her last three races may be front rank, along with Bellajeu who has generally been raced prominently.

Thereafter, the picture is less clear, with most of the field habitually racing near to, but just off, the pace. That could lead to a packing field and, as often happens in the Oaks, a few hard luck stories.

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2015 Oaks Preview

So much for trends and pace, what about actual form? The market is led by 1000 Guineas heroine, Legatissimo and rapidly progressive Crystal Zvezda at around 3/1 each.

David Wachman's Legatissimo needed all of Newmarket's Rowley Mile to get on top of Lucida in the first fillies' Classic, but was going away at the end in the manner of a lass needing further. That marries well with her previous run where she prevailed over nine furlongs in Listed company.

However, nine furlongs and twelve furlongs (the Oaks trip) are some way distant from each other.  Hope that she'll see the trip out comes from her extended family, with her mum - or dam, as we should say - winning over ten furlongs, and her uncle being none other than Ascot Gold Cup (2m4f) winner, Fame And Glory.

Despite possessing the class to win a 1000 Guineas, and probably having the stamina to win an Oaks, she's tight enough at 3/1 in a field of unexposed sorts.

Similar comments apply, for differing reasons, about Crystal Zvezda. Sir Michael Stoute's easy Newbury winner is progressing apace, but the form of the fillies she beat there has not worked out at all well. It may be that she was flattered there but, regardless, she has an awful lot of assumed improvement already factored into best odds of 7/2.

The buzz horse in the past week, and probably still a sliver of value at 7/1, is Jessie Harrington's terribly named Jack Naylor. Calling a filly - and a potentially high class filly at that - Jack is almost as bad as calling a horse The Geegeez Geegee, but we won't get into that here.

She has two pieces of form that her growing legion of fans can point to as giving her a big chance. First, she beat Legatissimo last season in a mile Listed contest when giving that one five pounds. With no hard luck stories about their respective passages through the race, it is easy to argue for Jack over Legat.

And secondly, she was the big eye catcher in the Irish 1000 Guineas: given a mountain to climb under exaggerated waiting tactics, she fair flew for fourth, just a pair of lengths behind the winner. She has a rock solid ten furlong pedigree and a robust chance of staying the extra quarter mile required to see out the Oaks range.

Three horses into the market and we're yet to mention a Ballydoyle filly. Let's put that right with a brace of O'Brien runners: Diamondsandrubies and Together Forever.

The former was a ready six length winner of the Cheshire Oaks over an eighth of a mile shy of the Epsom Oaks, having previously finished two lengths behind Irish 1000 Guineas fifth, Bocca Baciata, over a mile and a quarter.

With three runs to her name this season already, it's hard to see Diamondsandrubies progressing as much as many of these, and on what she's achieved so far it's hard to see her being good enough. I may be wrong - it happens quite a lot, you know - but as short at 6/1 about her chance is not remotely attractive to me.

Much more tasty is the general 10/1 about stable mate, Together Forever. True, she's more exposed than most, but she also has a higher level of form than most. And, as my teenage mates used to say back in the 80's, a bird in the hand is... well, let's leave it at that, shall we?

To her form: winner of the Group 1 Fillies' Mile on soft last October, that established level of high class ability has been somewhat overlooked in my opinion. The two and a half length fifth, Lucida, was second to Legatissimo in the Newmarket Guineas; and on a barmy collateral line that gives Together Forever the beating of David Wachman's filly.

I say "a barmy collateral line" because of the ground - soft - as well as the fact that collateral lines are pretty unreliable. But she'd recorded a pair of wins before that Newmarket run, both by wide margins - five lengths and three lengths.

Since then, on seasonal debut, she was a head second to Star Of Seville in the Musidora Stakes, a fine trial for the Oaks. She looked set to be beaten a long way there but rallied takingly to go down by just a head at the line.

The comment in the Racing Post - "no extra towards finish" - is plain wrong in my opinion, and Together Forever is bred to be a smart middle distance three-year-old: by Galileo out of a Theatrical mare. She's susceptible to a big improver but, at beyond a mile, I think she has the best level of form (and she's also won a Group 1 at a mile).

Her last day vanquisher, Star Of Seville, may have dossed in front there; or she may have run out of petrol. Breeding hints at the latter without being definitive. Certainly there's plenty of speed in her family (the likes of English Ballet and Spectacular Show).

Trained by John Gosden, who has two of the top three in the Derby betting at time or writing, Star Of Seville has moved up from a Class 5 maiden to a Class 3 conditions race to that Group 3 victory. She may yet have more to come, and with her pace-pressing style she'll probably be less likely to encounter a troubled trip than some. But will she stay? She's around 14/1 if you'd like to find out.

Currently the same price but taking a lot more support as I write is the same trainer's Jazzi Top, half-sister to Izzi Top. She has enough stamina in her pedigree to suggest she'll see out the trip, and was a good winner of the Pretty Polly Stakes, a decent trial for the Oaks.

Indeed, the last two Pretty Polly winners, Taghrooda and Talent, both went on to Oaks glory, as did super-mare, Ouija Board back in 2004.

Jazzi Top is just the sort of 'now' filly that could run a big race, and I'd far sooner chance her at 14's than Crystal Zvezda at 7/2. The reason for being in vogue with the bookies is that Frankie Dettori, enjoying a renaissance with John Gosden this season, has elected to ride her rather than the Musidora winner.

There is another pair of lurkers in Lady Of Dubai and French entry Al Namaah, but neither has the level of form or promise that others already mentioned possess.

For those looking for a runner lurking in the long grass - after all, this race has thrown up winners at 33/1 and 20/1 twice since 2008 - Wedding Vow is perhaps the most appealing. By Galileo out of Oaks second, Remember When, she's certainly bred for this job.

And, like Wedding Vow, Remember When also entered the Oaks as a maiden. True, 'mum'  was a close fourth in the Irish 1000 Guineas, but it's easy enough to excuse Wedding Vow's last day flop (a rare-as-hen's-teeth Ryan Moore misjudgement).

Prior to that she was second to Legatissimo over nine furlongs, and she looks to be screaming for the Oaks trip. She'll stay - forever probably - though she may well be too slow to make the frame at Epsom. Still, 50/1 non runner no bet (trainer states she may not run) could be fun.

 

2015 Investec Oaks Tips

As always, the Oaks is a race around which to tread very carefully. A lot of fillies are brought to the Downs via a 'softly softly' campaign, compared with the boys and the Derby. It is no surprise then that the average winning odds in the last decade are just over 12/1.

Legatissimo and Crystal Zvezda will shock nobody by winning, but nor do they offer an attractive risk-reward proposition, for me at least.

Jack Naylor is a likely contender and, had I previewed the Oaks last week (when she was a 14/1 chance), she might have been the one. But we've missed the boat there.

I do like Together Forever as a reliable sort, and Jazzi Top as a progressive sort. Picking between them is difficult, but I felt that Together Forever was given a perfect pipe opener for the season in the Musidora, and I'm a bit surprised she's not the Ballydoyle first choice.

At windmill-tilting prices, Wedding Vow has just a hint of je ne sais quoi about her. She needs to step up seven pounds or so to even make the frame, but over a trip she's bred for, that could happen.

1 pt win Together Forever 10/1 (bet365, best odds guaranteed, non-runner no bet)

0.5 pt win Jazzi Top 14/1 (Boyle, BetVictor, PP, Hills, all non-runner no bet)

0.25 pt e/w Wedding Vow 50/1 (bet365, best odds guaranteed, non-runner no bet and 1/4 1-2-3; 66/1 available with NRNB, but she may not run)