Unlike the Derby (G1) on Saturday, Friday’s Oaks (G1) at Epsom has a clear-cut market leader in Rhododendron. The Aidan O’Brien filly has shortened into odds-on territory with most bookmakers, while Ken McPeek’s Daddys Lil Darling is unsurprisingly a longshot in the range of 33 or 40-1.
Rhododendron laid claim to being the best of her division with a powerful display in last fall’s Fillies’ Mile (G1) at Newmarket. Resurfacing as the 5-4 favorite in the 1000 Guineas (G1) over the same Rowley Mile, she was a troubled runner-up. But her victorious stablemate Winter was unlikely to be caught in any event, and she came back to advertise the form by romping in Sunday’s Irish 1000 Guineas (G1). Rhododendron, a daughter of Galileo and 2008 Irish 1000 Guineas (G1) heroine Halfway to Heaven, now stretches out to 1 1/2 miles for the Oaks. The choice of in-demand jockey Ryan Moore, she’ll break from post 5 in the 10-horse field.
O’Brien has a dark horse in Alluringly, a beautifully bred Fastnet Rock filly whose second dam, All Too Beautiful, was runner-up to Ouija Board in the 2004 Oaks. More significantly, All Too Beautiful is a full sister to Galileo and a half-sister to Sea the Stars. Alluringly didn’t show much in two juvenile starts, but she looked potentially smart when drawing off in an April 20 maiden at Tipperary. She followed up with a second to Enable in the Chester Oaks, and her pedigree hints we haven’t seen the best of her yet. Seamie Heffernan, her pilot at Tipperary, now regains the mount. Rounding out the trio from Ballydoyle is Pocketfullofdreams, still a maiden after her runner-up efforts in the Salsabil S. and Lingfield Oaks Trial, and presumably the pacemaker.
Juddmonte homebred Enable currently ranks as the second betting choice. From the first crop of Nathaniel, and the immediate family of Flintshire, Enable has won two of three for John Gosden. She wasn’t seen until late November, but promptly romped on debut over Newcastle’s Tapeta. In her sophomore bow at Newbury, Enable finished third to stablemate Shutter Speed, who franked the form by capturing York’s Musidora (G3) and has her sights on the French Oaks (G1). Enable likewise flattered the result with a victory over Alluringly in the Chester trial, and she keeps master tactician Frankie Dettori in the saddle.
The other Juddmonte hopeful is also by Nathaniel, Natavia, from the Roger Charlton yard. The half-sister to Group 1-winning miler Spinning Queen wheels back after a maiden-breaking score in the Fillies’ Trial at Newbury May 20. Natavia picks up Irish ace Pat Smullen in this third career try.
Gosden is himself double-handed with Coronet, a Dubawi half-sister to Group 2 winner and dual classic-placed Midas Touch. The winner of both of her juvenile starts, Coronet beat a few high-profile colts in the Zetland at Newmarket last fall – Derby contender Permian along with her stablemate Cunco and Wings of Eagles (also in the Derby). She was most recently third to Sobetsu in her Prix Saint-Alary (G1) reappearance. With Dettori jumping ship for Enable, Andrea Atzeni gets the plum spare.
Godolphin’s Sobetsu was originally expected to await the French Oaks. Trainer Charlie Appleby called an audible, however, after the recent rain around Epsom ensured the ground wouldn’t be firm. Like Coronet, Sobetsu is by Dubawi and out of a well-related Darshaan mare. The homebred turned heads when galloping by 10 lengths in a Newmarket maiden, but she disappointed behind Rhododendron next time in the Fillies’ Mile. Sobetsu made amends in her 2017 premiere in the Prix Saint-Alary with her exclusive partner William Buick aboard.
Horseplay and Isabel de Urbina, the respective top two from Newmarket’s Pretty Polly S., renew rivalry on the grand stage. Cliveden Stud’s homebred Horseplay, was a 13-length maiden winner at Nottingham in her juvenile finale for Andrew Balding. By Cape Cross – sire of Sea the Stars, Golden Horn, and Ouija Board – Horseplay is out of a stakes-winning stayer by Lemon Drop Kid from a German family. Merriebelle Irish Farm’s homebred Isabel de Urbina, who scored at Ffos Las in her sole race at two, is a Lope de Vega half to two-time Italian highweight Hero Look. Her trainer, Ralph Beckett, has twice sent out longshots to win the Oaks (33-1 Look Here in 2008 and 20-1 Talent in 2013), raising her profile above her bare resume.
American shipper Daddys Lil Darling thus needs the race of her life to make her presence felt in what may prove an above-average renewal. Sixth in her only previous turf attempt in the Florida Oaks (G3) at Tampa Bay Downs, she’s accomplished more on the dirt so far, as evidenced by her win in the Pocahontas (G2) and her recent seconds in the Ashland (G1) and Kentucky Oaks (G1). As a Scat Daddy half-sister to 2015 Breeders’ Cup Turf Sprint (G1) upsetter Mongolian Saturday, Daddys Lil Darling is eligible to go well on the lawn. This is an audacious spot but McPeek is always ready to think, and act, globally, and he’s booked French maestro Olivier Peslier.
Two races earlier on Friday, the Coronation Cup (G1) presents a brother-versus-brother battle of Highland Reel versus Idaho. The older Highland Reel is by far the more accomplished, and the reigning Breeders’ Cup Turf (G1) hero is favored to leave his subpar run in the Dubai Sheema Classic (G1) well behind him. He won’t want the ground too soft, though. Idaho will be making his first start of his 2017 campaign. Last year’s Irish Derby (G1) runner-up and Epsom Derby third was unlucky to stumble and lose Heffernan when odds-on in the St Leger (G1). Idaho sought compensation in the Canadian International (G1), but didn’t land a blow in fifth. Moore obviously opts for Highland Reel, and Idaho gets Heffernan, who also rode him to his signature win in the Great Voltigeur (G2).
Not to be overlooked is the underachieving US Army Ranger, who’s yet to break through after finishing second as the favorite in the 2016 Derby. Yet the O’Brien charge may be rounding into peak form in his third outing of the season, having improved from his third to Air Pilot in the Alleged (G3) and his near-miss in the Ormonde (G3). Young rider Donnacha Brien now has an opportunity to steer the son of Galileo and 2008 Irish Oaks (G1) victress and Epsom Oaks runner-up Moonstone.
Godolphin answers with a trio of its own. Hawkbill, last year’s Eclipse (G1) victor, just annexed a Group 3 at Newbury, while his stablemate from the Appleby yard, Frontiersman, steps up in class from a convincing win under top weight in a Newmarket handicap. Frontiersman could be anything, being Ouija Board’s son by Dubawi. Godolphin trainer Saeed bin Suroor has the progressive Prize Money, who upset Postponed in the Dubai City of Gold (G2) before his fourth in the Sheema last out.
It’s not a strictly Coolmore and Godolphin show, since Gosden’s mare Journey is attracting quite a bit of support. George Strawbridge’s Dubawi homebred concluded 2016 on a high note, capping a three-race winning streak in the British Champions Fillies & Mares (G1). Journey hasn’t raced since, but her tactical speed in Dettori’s hands is dangerous.
The Ed Dunlop-trained Red Verdon, a hampered sixth in last year’s Derby and a staying-on fourth in the Irish equivalent, has gone unplaced in his two starts this season. Beckett’s Air Pilot, fifth in the 2015 Champion (G1) in his only previous Group 1 attempt, will be praying for much more rain. Balding’s Italian Group 1-placed mare Elbereth, second in the Dahlia (G2) last out, is cross-entered to Saturday’s Princess Elizabeth (G3).