All roads lead to Epsom Downs this coming weekend for the third and fourth Classics of the new Flat season, the Investec Derby and the Investec Oaks.
Steeped in tradition, the races provide the ultimate test for middle-distance three-year-old colts and fillies. But who will win the 2013 renewals? Here is the verdict on the Oaks of our resident expert, RICHARD ‘SCOOP’ SILVERWOOD.
It’s not often you find a Classic winner on a grey Tuesday afternoon in October at Leicester.
But that’s where SECRET GESTURE, Ralph Beckett’s worthy favourite for this week’s Investec Oaks at Epsom made her debut last year when runner-up in a 7f maiden.
Like everyone else in the tiny crowd, I had no idea we were witnessing a potential Group One star of the future. In fact, most of us were spitting feathers about a disappointing display from the well-backed favourite, the Charlie Hills-trained Desert Image.
But I am in the habit of making instant notes about a horse to catch my eye, and looking back, it was clear that Secret Gesture had posted a debut bristling with promise.
“Probably an above-average maiden, truly-run,” read my notes on the race. And of Beckett’s daughter of Galileo, I wrote: “Quite a light-framed, athletic filly and very much on her toes in the paddock, even a bit skittish. However, a fine debut, justifying her eyecatching pedigree and very significant market-support. Travelled extremely well, tracking the favourite who blazed a trail in front. Shaken up to throw down her challenge from 2f out and every chance in a three-way go. Stuck on for pressure and should have learned a lot.”
We discovered, three weeks later, exactly how much she had learned because she bolted up in a deply impressive victory at Newbury.
But not even that was to prepare us for her seasonal return earlier this month when stepped up in class to tackle the Lingfield Oaks Trial. She could not have won it with more comfort and class, wheeling down the Epsom-type bend into the straight, quickening to the front and drawing clear with effortless ease.
Of course, the Oaks itself represents another major step-up in class. But the Lingfield race proved she is guaranteed to stay the trip -- as befits the daughter of the 2001 Derby winner and a dam who is a half-sister to the 1998 Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe winner, Sagamix.
Furthermore, Beckett is convinced Secret Gesture has the “temperament and professionalism” to handle the heady atmosphere on the Surrey Downs, which leaves just one nagging question -- can she do it on much faster ground than she has encountered so far? The trainer has little doubt -- and has always said so. Indeed he almost pulled her out of that debut at Leicester because he was worried about the good-to-soft ground. It was heavy at Newbury and soft at Lingfield.
Having saddled the 2008 Oaks heroine, Look Here, Beckett knows what it takes to land the fillies’ middle-distance Classic. Indeed his yard also contains one of Secret Gesture’s main rivals, TALENT, the daughter of another Derby victor, New Approach, and one of the best Arc winners of all time, Peintre Celebre.
On her seasonal bow, in the Pretty Polly Stakes at Newmarket, Talent actually beat Lady Nouf, the filly who edged out Secret Gesture in the Leicester race. It was significant that Beckett sacrificed an attractive handicap-mark of 82 to even run her in the Listed contest -- and even more significant that she stayed on to win after pulling like fury through the first half-mile. If she has progressed from that and learned to settle, she won’t be far away for champion jockey Richard Hughes.
Disputing market-leadership with Secret Gesture is the Aidan O’Brien-trained MOTH, another daughter of Galileo. She failed to justify her lofty home-reputation on testing ground as a juvenile, but was ridiculously impressive when landing her maiden in April before scampering home strongly to finish third in the 1,000 Guineas at Newmarket.
Moth’s class credentials cannot be disputed. But it’s rare for Oaks winners to successfully make the big transition from the 1m of a Guineas to 12f and it is slightly off-putting that, after Newmarket, jockey Joseph O’Brien felt she didn’t handle the undulations too well and might prefer a flat track. Flat is something the helter-skelter gradients of Epsom are not.
O’Brien also fields SAY, yet another Galileo filly, who is open to any amount of improvement after running away with a weak maiden at Cork three weeks ago.
However, bigger dangers are the mounts of Kieren Fallon and Ryan Moore, BANOFFEE, trained by Hughie Morrison, and LIBER NAUTICUS, the flagbearer of Sir Michael Stoute, who is seeking his first Oaks success since Unite in 1987.
Banoffee would be an unusual winner in that she did not race as a juvenile. But after making all to triumph first time out in a maiden at Newbury at April, she was a sparkling scorer under very different hold-up tactics in the Cheshire Oaks at Chester. A daughter of 2005 Arc winner, Hurricane Run, she tanked through the race before quickening past most of the field in the short home straight. The figures, ratings and trends will tell you she cannot win, but given the rate at which she is improving, anything is possible.
Liber Nauticus has been something of a talking-horse since winning in eyecatching fashion on her debut at Goodwood last September, despite palpable greenness. She still appeared to have plenty to learn when grinding out the Group Three Musidora Stakes at York on her only other start two weeks ago -- and there are obvious fears that the Oaks might come a few weeks too soon. But as a powerful, scopy filly, there will be few better-looking in this week’s field, and both her style of running and her pedigree make it abundantly clear she won’t be beaten for stamina.
A fascinating race is in prospect. If the forecast for ground on the easy side of good is correct, my 1-2-3-4 is:
1st SECRET GESTURE
3rd LIBER NAUTICUS