If the Investec Derby threatens to be a sub-standard main course, its aperitif is the tastiest of dishes.
Friday’s Investec Oaks is a vintage renewal. Of the 11 fillies declared, a serious chance can be given to at least eight. And unlike in the premier Classic 24 hours later, reservations about stamina limitations simply don’t exist.
Unravelling the puzzle is a head-scratcher made even more difficult by the fact that, until this week, many of the principals were potential rides for Ryan Moore. Our number one jockey piloted LEGATISSIMO, CRYSTAL ZVEZDA, TOGETHER FOREVER and DIAMONDSANDRUBIES in their prep runs -- and all enhanced their claims for Oaks success.
His decision to side with David Wachman’s 1,000 Guineas winner, just in front of Crystal Zvedza, is a tip in itself, given his strengthened links with the Aidan O’Brien yard this season. Of course, the owners of Legatissimo, messrs Tabor, Magnier and Smith, are themselves joined at the Ballydoyle hip. But so good was Diamondsandrubies in cracking the Cheshire Oaks and Together Forever in almost giving weight to the winner of her seasonal bow in the Musidora at York that they cannot have been easy to resist for Saturday. After all, the former’s dam, Quarter Moon, was a runner-up at Epsom in 2002, and the latter is already a Group One winner. It could even be argued that O’Brien’s decision to rely on the duo, rather than long-time winter favourite, FOUND, is highly significant.
The lure of Crystal Zvezda, trained by his ‘other boss’, Sir Michael Stoute, must have been even more tempting for Moore. Without any question, the daughter of Dubawi and half-sister to Crystal Capella was the pick of all the Oaks trial winners when bursting from virtually last to first with a searing turn of foot at Newbury. Poignantly, her success came only two days after the death of her dam, and it represented the kind of spectacular improvement that only Stoute can induce from progressive fillies.
That Moore has settled on Legatissimo reinforces the deep impression she made at Newmarket when reeling in Jim Bolger’s warm favourite, LUCIDA. The pair pulled a long way clear of the rest and although it is accepted that it was a Guineas lacking strength in depth, it needs to be stressed too that Lucida is considered some way superior to PLEASCACH, Bolger’s victor two weeks ago of the Irish 1,000 Guineas, from which another of Saturday’s fancies, JACK NAYLOR, emerges.
Considering how strongly Legatissimo travelled at HQ and, more notably, at Gowran Park over 10f a week earlier, her suitability for a step-up to Saturday’s trip of 12f would normally be a worry. When you realise her dam is by Montjeu and hails from the family of Derby runner-up and Ascot Gold Cup winner Fame And Glory, the worry quickly disappears.
Detractors point to a Listed juvenile contest last August when Legatissimo (and Together Forever for that matter) were soundly beaten by Jack Naylor, even though they were getting 5lbs. But trainer Wachman insists Legatissimo was a big, weak filly then and has improved appreciably. Whether Together Forever has made the same strides this season remains to be seen, although supporters of STAR OF SEVILLE must be hoping she has. John Gosden’s sturdy daughter of the brilliant Duke Of Marmalade is the horse who only just repelled the charge of O’Brien’s filly in the Musidora, despite receiving 4lbs and holding a fitness advantage. She has also been rejected by Frankie Dettori for Saturday’s Classic, even though Gosden himself has expressed stamina fears about the Italian’s preferred mount, JAZZI TOP, winner of a woefully weak Pretty Polly Stakes at Newmarket on 1,000 Guineas Day.
As for Jack Naylor, Jessica Harrington’s charge has already proved herself a model of consistency at the highest level. She adds ballast to the dubious form of that Irish Guineas after running on strongly into fourth on her first outing of the campaign, and should appreciate both trip and track at Epsom as the daughter of a mare by 1989 Epsom great, Nashwan. Whether she quite has the class to land a proper Group One is questionable. Jockey Fran Berry deserted her for a stablemate at The Curragh. Richard Hughes, who took Berry’s place, is now on Crystal Zvedza -- a booking by the Stoute team that can only add to the volume of confidence behind their filly.
In summary, I can envisage a battle royal between Crystal Zvedza and Legatissimo, both for favouritism in the market and through the final 2f on the track which, if nothing else, will prove how right Moore was to shun the O’Brien challenge and narrow his riding choice to these two. Legatissimo must go close to becoming the first filly to complete the Guineas/Oaks double since Kazzia 13 years ago. But granted another step forward from Newbury, it is hard to find holes in the profile of Crystal Zvedza.
If there is a rival to emerge from left field, maybe LADY OF DUBAI, a filly similarly progressive and similarly eyecatching when bolting up at Goodwood a fortnight ago, is it. I loved the way Luca Cumani educated her, step by step, as a two-year-old. Beautifully bred and expensively bought, she never missed a beat and possesses the attributes to spring a surprise at Epsom.
Of course, whether she or any of the fillies we have spoken about are equipped to handle testing ground is another matter. The latest forecast suggests heavy rain could drop on to the Downs on Friday. What a travesty it would be if such a fascinating race -- and the perfect antidote to a disappointing Derby -- was sabotaged by the weather.
MY OAKS 1-2-3
1 CRYSTAL ZVEDZA
3 LADY OF DUBAI