As of Monday, 18 sophomores are eligible for Saturday’s Derby (G1) at Epsom, including a grand total of seven from trainer Aidan O’Brien. That Ballydoyle septet is expected to be whittled down by Thursday’s final declaration stage, with the French Derby (G1) looming as an alternative on Sunday. Riding assignments and post positions will also be finalized Thursday.
Topping the list is US Army Ranger, who’s currently vying for Epsom favoritism with the John Gosden-trained Wings of Desire. By supersire Galileo and out of 2008 Irish Oaks (G1) heroine Moonstone (who was also second in the Epsom Oaks [G1]), US Army Ranger is unbeaten from two starts, both this spring.
After breaking his maiden at the Curragh, US Army Ranger traveled to get an education in the Chester Vase (G3) (click link for video). He traveled conspicuously well in the slipstream of pacemaker Port Douglas, handling the tight-turning course with an economic action and athleticism very reassuring for Epsom. Readily quickening as Port Douglas turned up the tempo, US Army Ranger showed agility to rally up the inside and struck the front. Then his relative inexperience came out, as he nearly let the more street-wise Port Douglas come back on him. But US Army Ranger did enough to keep his head in front on the line. O’Brien projects considerable improvement, and it’s hard to argue with that prognostication. The biggest quibble is his price, a bit cramped for a horse trading more on home reputation in an open-looking year.
Wings of Desire has made rapid progress himself – unexpectedly so, since Gosden had removed him from the Derby back in March, when he hadn’t even done any serious training yet. The full brother to Eagle Top, and three-quarter brother to 2009 Epsom/Irish Oaks queen Sariska, graduated from a Wolverhampton maiden win in April to a 9-1 upset in the Dante (G2) at York. Finishing with a flourish from the rear, Wings of Desire collared O’Brien’s Deauville by a neck in a fast time for that premier Derby trial. Thus owner/breeder Lady Bamford had to put up the £75,000 to supplement Wings of Desire for Epsom, where he will try to give Gosden and jockey Frankie Dettori a second straight Derby after Golden Horn.
I suspect that fitness told late in the Dante, for Deauville was making his seasonal reappearance for O’Brien. He fared best of those racing near the pace, and kicked clear in the straight before getting caught. It wouldn’t be a surprise if a fitter Deauville turned the tables on Wings of Desire in a rematch. Among the prominent juveniles last year, the Galileo colt won his first two starts, including the Tyros (G3), and checked in a stubborn second to Gosden’s then-flying Foundation in the Royal Lodge (G2). Deauville was a below-par fifth in the Racing Post Trophy (G1) in his 2015 finale. But judging by how emphatically he reversed form with Foundation (third in the Dante), Deauville’s likely still on the upgrade. Unless he goes to France, Deauville will offer good value for an O’Brien horse at the price.
O’Brien could also send out Idaho, a full brother to Highland Reel, who has twice placed to Harzand and Moonlight Magic in Leopardstown’s trials; Beacon Rock, who was beaten in the same two races before rebounding with a front-running coup versus lesser in the Gallinule (G3); Shogun, a full brother to last year’s Oaks shocker Qualify, who like his sister has been well exposed in stakes company; and Bravery, a well-beaten fourth in the Irish 2000 Guineas (G1) off a Dundalk maiden score. [Update: Beacon Rock and Bravery were withdrawn, leaving a final field of 16.]
The Aga Khan’s homebred Harzand isn’t certain to line up here. The Dermot Weld pupil stayed on to overtake Idaho in the Ballysax (G3) on heavy ground, leaving jockey Pat Smullen to size him up as more of an Irish Derby (G1) or really St Leger (G1) type: “I think he is too big and heavy to go around Epsom,” Smullen told irishracing.com.
A much more appealing prospect from that race is Moonlight Magic, a three-quarter brother to the immortal Sea the Stars. Trained by Jim Bolger, who believes he’s on par with his 1992 Irish Derby star and Epsom runner-up St Jovite at this stage, Moonlight Magic suffered his only loss when fifth in the Ballysax. I was chalking it up to being his first start of the year on desperate ground, but Godolphin’s John Ferguson revealed that the colt had a dirty scope afterward.
A healthy Moonlight Magic rebounded in style in the Derrinstown Stud Derby Trial (G3) last out. The one hesitation about him is that he has to be niggled at on the turn, and typically you want horses who travel smartly on the bridle around Epsom. Yet I like the way Moonlight Magic strides out down the straightaway, and he strikes me as the best value play in the Derby.
Godolphin is double-handed, having supplemented Cloth of Stars for £75,000. The Andre Fabre trainee used to be in the shadow of stablemate Ultra, until the latter was sidelined by a splint injury, and Cloth of Stars kicked off 2016 with consecutive wins in the Prix La Force (G3) and Prix Greffulhe (G2). As a son of Sea the Stars, Cloth of Stars figures to improve with maturity. He’s endorsing that view by handily beating his nemesis from his juvenile days, Robin of Navan, in the Greffulhe.
Ulysses steps up considerably off a maiden romp at Newbury. Considering that he’s a Niarchos Family homebred trained by Sir Michael Stoute, it’s no wonder that the blueblood is attracting plenty of support in the antepost market. But he’s also got a form boost, since Imperial Aviator, who’d denied him two starts back, has since dominated a lucrative Newbury handicap that tends to turn up future Group performers.
As a son of Galileo and 2008 Oaks winner Light Shift, Ulysses is aiming for some lofty company. The only other Derby winning-sons of a Derby winner and an Oaks winner are Australia (Galileo-Ouija Board) and Lammtarra (Nijinsky II-Snow Bride, who was awarded the Oaks via DQ). Ulysses isn’t the only Light Shift relative here: Cloth of Stars is out of a full sister Light Shift.
Red Verdon takes a class hike off a pair of smashing handicap victories, prompting connections to pay the £75,000 supplemental fee. Campaigned by the same team responsible for the ill-fated Red Cadeaux (owner Ronald Arculli and trainer Ed Dunlop), Red Verdon won over the same course and distance as the next day’s Chester Vase in virtually identical time to US Army Ranger. The son of Lemon Drop Kid made a mockery of his opponents next time when gearing down at Haydock. Interestingly, Red Verdon hails from the family of Hong Kong’s only Triple Crown winner, River Verdon, who was co-owned by Arculli.
In contrast, Sheikh Hamdan’s Massaat has already proven himself at the highest level, finishing second to Air Force Blue in last fall’s Dewhurst (G1) and to Galileo Gold in his latest in the 2000 Guineas (G1). The two quibbles are whether he’ll be as effective over the Derby trip, and whether his current form will look as good over the long haul. At any rate, Massaat is a very likeable individual who’s never been out of the top two in his life, and made a huge impression when just missing to subsequent Group 1-placed Cymric on debut.
Algometer gives off the vibe of a St Leger horse, and trainer David Simcock has said he’ll need a bit of rain to take his chance. Nevertheless, the son of Archipenko and top-class mare Albanova made then-Derby favorite Midterm work to put him away at Sandown. Algometer subsequently showed relentless determination to prevail in a tactical renewal of the Cocked Hat at Goodwood, and he’s definitely going the right way.
Humphrey Bogart was added to the Derby for £75,000 after his last-gasp success in the Lingfield Derby Trial, with a rank Across the Stars back in third. Humphrey Bogart, who comes from the same family as Harzand, has experience around Epsom. Two starts back, the Richard Hannon colt yielded to the exciting filly So Mi Dar, who would have been a main threat in the Oaks. He was probably fortunate to come that close to her, and his form is otherwise unpretentious.
Across the Stars likewise needs to show more than he’s done so far, but it could be significant that Stoute sees fit to give him a chance. And he gets Kieren Fallon aboard.
Biodynamic, a distant fourth behind US Army Ranger at Chester, will be the longest shot on the board.
Still to come are the form guides to the Oaks and Coronation Cup…