Racing: Toller's chestnut in good shape for Oaks

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The Independent Online

If Oaks fancy Hanami was moving as awkwardly as her trainer, those who have backed her to third favouritism for the distaff crown would have cause to worry. Happily, though, the pretty chestnut's progress towards Epsom since her fine fifth in the 1,000 Guineas has been trouble-free.

It is only James Toller who is sporting the sling and strapping, the result of a disagreement with his hack on Newmarket Heath on Monday that resulted in a broken collarbone and slight concussion.

The accident does, however, give him the chance to prove he can train a Classic winner with one hand tied, even if not quite behind his back. In four days he has certainly become quite efficient at coping with the computer, paperwork and coffee-making at his Hamilton Road base, under the constraint.

Toller, 49, is one of life's natural pessimists but even he admits that a flicker has been there almost since day one where Hanami is concerned.

"It's what it's all about, isn't it?" he said yesterday. "Every year you look at your two-year-olds and hope that one of them is going to be special. On paper she was going to be late- maturing but she was one of those few who, right from the start, always did everything - cantering, going in the stalls, all the things they have to learn - so easily and without fuss. I'm used to disappointments and things going wrong and I'm trying not to get too excited. But she's great for morale in the yard."

The Hernando filly's juvenile success in a mile contest at her local course in early November, and her pedigree, spoke of middle-distances. "I trained her dam to win a two-mile handicap," said Toller, "and I couldn't really imagine she'd produce something with pace and gears.

"But early in the spring Hanami did a couple of very good bits of work with Duck Row which confirmed that perhaps I wasn't totally wrong and I was hopeful that she wouldn't disgrace us in the Guineas." Indeed she did not. Starting at 50-1, she had only the four high-class juveniles Russian Rose, Six Perfections, Intercontinental and Soviet Song in front of her and the subsequent Irish Guineas heroine Yesterday behind.

And like a few others, she had a troubled passage up the Rowley Mile. "I told Darryll [Holland] not to use her too much too early," said Toller. "But you can't expect your jockey to control what everyone else does and when two horses collide in front of you there's not much to be done. With a better run she might have been third but on the positive side she ran a good trial for the Oaks without having had too hard a time."

Hanami further warmed up last week for her Epsom experience by going the wrong way down the Rowley Mile from the seven-furlong marker, a trick that Toller learned in his days with Luca Cumani, used to prep 1977 Oaks second and third Freeze The Secret and Vaguely Deb. "Going that way brings in a left-handed bend and quite a downhill stretch," he said. "Hanami coped with it fine. She should cope with the Oaks atmosphere, too; she's quite full of it, but only in a nice, exuberant way."

Victory at Epsom would strike a blow for the so-called little man, for Hanami is home-bred by her owner, a publicity-shy (at this stage) banker currently based in Japan, the first foal from a mare who cost just 5,200 guineas, and Toller trains just 32 at Eve Lodge, his stables since his return to Newmarket three years ago.

His only Group One success to date, the Duke of Devonshire's 50-1 July Cup winner Compton Place, came during a five-year stint at Whitsbury, in Hampshire.

Toller would like more horses, but admits that he may only have himself to blame. "Maybe I don't put enough effort into it," he said, "but I'm a realist where horses are concerned and I don't like bullshitting, and perhaps owners who are taken in by bullshit aren't worth having anyway. Being back in Newmarket, where the facilities and infrastructure are so good, helps, but on the other hand someone looking to place a horse will have heard of M Stoute, not J Toller." A week today, that may well change.

OAKS (Epsom, 6 June) William Hill ante-post odds: 9-4 Yesterday, 7-2 Hi Dubai, 7-1 Hanami & Hammiya*, 12-1 Casual Look, 16-1 Halawanda & Ocean Silk, 20-1 Geminiani, Mezzo Soprano & Waldmark, 33-1 Lady Catherine, L'Ancresse & Summitville, 40-1 Gonfilia, High Praise & Snippets, 66-1 Hearts 'N Minds, 100-1 Inchberry, Moonsprite, Magnificent Bell & Thingmebob. (* needs to be supplemented).