1pt win Muraad in 2.35 Epsom at 12/1 (General)
1pt win You’re Hired in 3.45 Epsom at 14/1 (General)
1pt e.w. Willow in 4.30 Epsom at 40/1 (Paddy Power, Betfair, bet365 1/5 1,2,3,4)
Here we go again with Santa Barbara. Taking on Aidan O’Brien’s twice-raced filly for the rest of her career will inevitably leave punters counting their costs but the Cazoo Oaks favourite simply has to be opposed on Friday as she looks to build on last month's 1000 Guineas fourth.
For such an inexperienced horse going into Newmarket, it was a really high-class effort from the eventual 5/2 joint-favourite, and a perfectly sound Epsom trial, but there wasn’t enough in that performance to justify the daughter of Camelot being quite so short for the Oaks, particularly as she looked slightly ill-at-ease going in and out of the Dip (click to watch free replay).
Perhaps it would be a different story had Mother Earth and Fev Rover considerably franked the form since but they could only manage second and 10th in Paris and at the Curragh respectively, leaving the evidence looking anything but bombproof.
As for the other obvious trialists, Chester one-two Dubai Fountain and Zeyaadah are preferred – not necessarily in that order – to Snowfall, Teona and Mystery Angel, who contested the Musidora at York.
However, the Coolmore operation and Aidan O’Brien are almost as synonymous with Epsom Classic surprises as they are with the greats of the game to have shone on this stage, with Was (20/1, 2012), Qualify (50/1, 2015) and to a lesser extent Forever Together (7/1, 2018) all causing turn-ups by beating better-fancied stablemates to Oaks glory.
What they had in common were impeccable pedigrees and the fact they were beaten in their prep runs, and WILLOW looks underestimated in the betting this time around given her similar sort of profile.
When it comes to breeding, few horses in action this week will be able to match up to Willow’s page, her dam and sire having won a dozen Group/Grade One races between them on either side of the Atlantic, and much like dam Peeping Fawn, she’s been something of a slow burner.
Peeping Fawn was unraced altogether at two but enjoyed a remarkable Classic campaign which featured five wins from 10 runs, including in the Irish Oaks and the Yorkshire Oaks. From a relatively lowly footing – beaten in maidens on her first three racecourse visits – she just got better and better the more she raced and it does look significant O’Brien has wanted to get a couple of outings into Willow during April and May, including one against older horses at Naas last month.
The aforementioned Was suffered defeat in the Blue Wind Stakes en route to Epsom and Willow’s effort in third in the same race was pretty pleasing, especially in light of her sluggish seasonal debut at Navan when looking well short of her physical peak.
It’s hoped she’s continued to strengthen and sharpen up since Naas as she’ll need to improve the best part of a stone to even be competitive, but we’ve been here so many times with Ballydoyle runners tackling a mile and a half for the first time to leave her out of calculations at current odds.
The draw could hardly have been kinder – she’s in five and the past 10 winners have emerged from stalls 2-10 – and I wouldn’t be dead against her going from the front, or at least helping to force the pace, with doubtful stayers Mystery Angel and Saffron Beach among those in the field who normally race to the fore, along with free-going stable companion Snowfall and Mark Johnston's Dubai Fountain, whose Cheshire Oaks win came over the extended mile and three furlongs.
Willow looked every inch a Classic prospect when powering to victory by over two lengths in a one-mile Leopardstown maiden last October and taking her two spring efforts this year too literally looks really quite dangerous. She's a good each-way bet at 40s and anything north of 25/1 looks fair.
Ormonde Stakes winner Japan could be made to look one-paced if Al Aasy can replicate his recent Newbury form in the Coral Coronation Cup, but the presence of Mogul does put me off the favourite slightly.
Mogul had no shot in the end from stall two in last year's Derby but was always reckoned to be a longer-term project and he has won three of his seven starts since, in fairness. I thought he ran as well as could be expected from another impossible early position in a slowly-run Breeders’ Cup Turf at Keeneland, while his overseas efforts this year haven’t been devoid of promise either.
Getting back up to a mile and a half on a sound surface will surely help Mogul, but one thing he really needs is a guaranteed end-to-end gallop and this might get a touch too tactical with the fillies Alpinista and Albaflora both dangerous as well under the right circumstances.
There are several unexposed candidates in the Cazoo Handicap but that’s not always the crucial factor around here and YOU'RE HIRED is too big a price to ignore.
At eight he's the oldest in the field but he was better than ever last season, posting excellent placed efforts at Goodwood and in the Cambridgeshire when fourth on his penultimate start.
He’s only 1lb lower than the big Newmarket run in September and is still probably paying the price for winning by 14 lengths first time out at HQ last June, but a mark of 91 doesn’t put him completely out of calculations based on a couple of efforts, including a solid fifth off 92 in this event last summer. The freshness angle after 212 days away clearly isn't a bad thing either.
Sky Defender and Data Protection, the reopposing horses who finished ahead of him in first and fourth here last year, return with 5lb and 6lb higher ratings, yet both are shorter in the betting.
You’re Hired will love it if the ground continues to dry out and he should pick up a nice early pitch under James Doyle (14-81 for the yard) from stall three, from which he can hopefully chase front-running Lawn Ranger, who has developed into a bit of a weak finisher of late.
Owen Burrows’ last three Epsom runners have all won (he’s 3-5 at the course overall) and it’s worth taking a chance that eyecatching trend can continue courtesy of MURAAD in the Coral ‘Beaten A Length’ Free Bet Handicap.
He’s going to be the trainer’s sole representative at the meeting and it could be an inspired move as it wouldn’t come as much of a surprise to see the tricky track suit this horse, whose one turf success to date came at the equally challenging Goodwood last August.
On that occasion he came from the clouds to mow down Overwrite on the line and Mark Johnston’s horse, who was getting 15lb including weight-for-age at the time, is a couple of pounds worse off with the top weight here. He’s also thoroughly exposed now after 21 career starts, whereas Muraad was making just his 10th appearance when returning to the fray at Ascot at the end of April.
He’s evidently a horse who has two ways of running and Ascot was another very flat effort after signing off last term with a well-beaten run at Sandown, but he was sent off 15/8 favourite off this mark on the latter occasion and will appreciate having his sights lowered from Listed level back into the handicap ranks.
He’s an interesting one tactically too as he was far too keen and ran from the front - before weakening - at Ascot last time and a more patient approach could be adopted from stall seven at Epsom, with Jim Crowley taking over from Dane O’Neill. That said, the early pace looks to be even wider through Overwrite (stall nine) and Corazon Espinado (10) so he might be able to clear several down on his inside and get across into a decent mid-pack position at least.
The five-year-old son of Dark Angel handles any ground and while he’s going to need to leave his comeback display well and truly behind, he’s had another month to sharpen up since then and this fixture may have been the plan for a while given the trainer's track record.
Published at 1300 BST on 03/06/21
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