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Derby & Oaks Update: Band leader O'Brien to take another classic

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With the Derby and Oaks at Epsom just a couple of weeks away, Keith Melrose suggests a couple of early bets.

You imagine an open-door policy at Ballydoyle. You imagine that Aidan O’Brien is keen to hear the questions asked, to hear inquisitiveness from those around him. You imagine that at some point in late-May one of his protégés tends to ask, if only for argument's sake: ‘Aidan, are we definitely on the right one for the Derby?’.

Don’t think it hasn’t been asked, even this year when the Coolmore team have built little short of a cult of personality around 2000 Guineas third Australia. This is Coolmore after all. These are the men, led by the pedagogical O’Brien, who give the impression of approaching horses and races from every angle, asking questions that no other major operation asks.

The answer to The Derby Question we can assume; we even asked it in the comparatively heathen confines of Timeform House and came up with the same answer. The difference is that looking from the outside in, it becomes apparent that Australia’s biggest danger lies closer by than Ballydoyle may anticipate.

In the same way that some runnings of the Derby are strong and others are weak, the trials for it that punctuate each May vary in their usefulness. Overall this has been a lesser year; since Australia pinned his 123p on the board at Newmarket nothing has been able to reach as high. True Story (121) had been tucked just behind but slipped up in an ordinary Dante; the Derrinstown raised more questions than it asked, bringing the position of Geoffrey Chaucer (115p) as second-favourite for Epsom into contention; Lingfield (Snow Sky, 110) and the Dee Stakes (Kingfisher, 109) gave us nothing within realistic touching distance of Derby-winning form.

As its surroundings have cooled, the warmly-received Chester Vase has seen its temperature rise. Ballydoyle’s Orchestra and Romsdal (both 113p), with just four previous starts between them, came right away from a useful field there and clocked a good Timefigure in testing conditions. Orchestra’s winning margin was only a nose, yet it had looked for much of the straight as though it would be a good deal more emphatic than that; Ryan Moore sent him on two furlongs out and he’d looked in total command before edging right, that allowing the strong-finishing Romsdal to close up.

Hanging like Orchestra did is obviously a dispiriting sign ahead of a trip to unforgiving Epsom, though as alluded to above inexperience is a more likely cause than waywardness. Coolmore can evidently get a green one ready in the space between Chester and Epsom, too: Ruler of The World had visited a racecourse just once, a month previously, before he won last year’s Chester Vase and subsequently the Derby.

In a race in which the bookmakers have had little time to (or indeed seen little point in) establishing the Ballydoyle pecking order behind Australia they have overlooked the extremely promising Orchestra, who can be backed at as big as 20/1. We recommend that you take advantage, if only each-way; after all, The Lads have already made their minds up on Australia and, more importantly, have the facts by way of corroboration.

***

Shadwell and Coolmore have much in common besides both being recognised as one of world racing’s powerhouses. There is no omnipotent O’Brien-like figure to weigh and measure Hamdan Al Maktoum’s well-spread legions, the one-man band of retained jockey Paul Hanagan having to make the choices for himself. In the Oaks it is Al Maktoum and Hanagan who hold the stronger hand.

In practice, Hanagan’s choice will essentially be made for him; the good news for him is that it is probably the correct one, anyway. Pat Smullen will almost certainly ride Tarfasha, an impressive winner of her recent trial and close relative of last year’s Derby third Galileo Rock.

Tarfasha was taking on older horses on what was just her fourth start in Naas’ Blue Wind Stakes but certainly didn’t appear to lack for experience. If anything, you’d suggest that the only thing she needs more of is distance, the fact she took a while to really assert once Smullen asked certainly suggesting 12 furlongs will see her to better effect. Her pedigree does the same, with high-class stayer Saddler’s Rock also among her half-siblings.

Tarfasha’s Timeform rating is now 109p, which is already within range of the average Oaks winner- and, between you and me, discussions were had about making that p a large one. In most years Hanagan would probably be pleading for the ride, but in 2014 he has Taghrooda.

Everything Tarfasha did in the Blue Wind, Taghrooda did that little bit better in the Pretty Polly on 1000 Guineas day. She travelled well, took just a little time to wind up off the bridle but then stormed out of the Dip, coming an easy six lengths clear by the line. Hanagan, who rode her for the first time that day, barely had to reach for the whip.

It’s all positive with Taghrooda, not just the small matter of one thundering performance for which she earned a Timeform figure of 114p- just 1 lb lower than the average Oaks winner in recent years. Her pedigree is as strong as you’d expect, by Sea The Stars and her dam being out of a sister to Ebaziya, one of the best broodmares of recent times. She also has the build of one who’ll continue to develop; that’s not always an unmitigated plus at Epsom, where a degree of agility is required, though Taghrooda showed no sign of struggling with the admittedly milder undulations of the Rowley Mile.

As far as form goes, only a handful of foreign-trained fillies pose a serious threat to the Al Maktoum pair and the chances are that they will have other targets- you suspect that Prix Cleopatra winner Shamkala in particular would be shorter in the Oaks betting were she Epsom-bound. The question then is whether the disparity in the market is just? Should Tarfasha be as big as 7/1 when Taghrooda is 7/4?

The short answer is probably not. The longer answer is that both ought to be shorter, and the question ought to be would you rather back an evens chance at 7/4 or a 5s shot at 7s? Trust that tissue and the maths favour Taghrooda. Serendipitously, that happens to be our view, too.

Recommendations:

Back Orchestra each-way @ 20/1 in the Derby

Back Taghrooda @ 7/4 in the Oaks

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