Racing: Oaks can fall to O'Brien machine

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THREE MINUTES and forty five seconds is not a great deal of time when you are trying to get the hang of something as dramatic and unpredictable as racing, still less so when you are a horse and, by definition, not too bright. This, though, is the sum total of racecourse experience which Zahrat Dubai can call upon as she attempts to win the Oaks today, and it could prove to be a more significant figure than any of those in front of her opponents' names on the Epsom racecard.

The reason is, quite simply, that on the evidence of the form book, one of the few ways she can be beaten is if she beats herself. Few Classic trials are won with the authority which Zahrat Dubai imposed on the Musidora Stakes at York, fewer still leave no doubts about the winner's stamina, or ability to handle the going when the big day arrives. But that was the situation on the Knavesmire three weeks ago, and little has happened to dim the memory.

Zahrat Dubai will stay, there is no reason to think she will not come down the hill, and she should improve too, after just two trips to official meetings and to a trial in Dubai back in April which was, to all intents, the second race of her career. Nor is it a worry that the weather gods and their representative on earth, Andrew Cooper, Epsom's clerk of the course, have between them conspired to produce an easy surface. Near-identical conditions prevailed at York on Musidora Day. Little wonder then that she is a 15-8 chance.

Yet there is still one brief phrase from the post-race debriefing which gnaws at the confidence. According to Simon Crisford, Godolphin's racing manager, Zahrat Dubai has "a slightly nervy temperament".

It may come to nothing. This is, after all, the Oaks, not the Derby, and there will probably be many more spectators - and much more of an atmosphere - at tonight's England B football international. It may also be mere paranoia to note that Godolphin have decided to back up Zahrat Dubai's challenge with Kilting, who was punted from 20-1 to 5-1 in the space of a couple of hours this week.

The nagging suspicion, though, is that Zahrat Dubai may not be quite the unshakeable favourite she appears to be. Indeed, you could argue that no filly could ever merit such a short price for the Oaks, given that so many of her rivals are stepping up to 12 furlongs for the first time and capable of showing immense improvement.

The implication of this way of thinking is that there must be a value alternative in the field. Ramruma, the second favourite, won the Lingfield Oaks Trial well, but may have beaten little. A similar comment could apply to Claxon, the Lupe Stakes winner, and France's Sunday Picnic, while Kilting has done little - in public at least - to justify her prominence in the betting.

This leaves two interesting options for punters. The first, for real optimists, is Miss Amanpuri, who was fourth in the Lupe, but ran on with real vigour through the last furlong. She will not win today, but could come through beaten horses to snatch a place at an outrageous price.

The other is Aidan O'Brien's SUNSPANGLED (nap 4.00), whose cv is remarkably similar to that of Shahtoush, his Oaks winner 12 months ago. Though beaten in both the English and Irish 1,000 Guineas, Sunspangled showed enough in those Classics to imply that she could recapture her Group One-winning juvenile form granted a test of stamina. The Oaks could be just what she needs, and 9-1 is too generous a price to refuse.

The Coronation Cup, the day's second Group One event, is equally competitive. The best of the seven runners may be Dream Well (3.20), last year's French and Irish Derby winner, although the strength in depth is such that no outcome could be described as a surprise.

Norfolk Reed (2.10) and Song `N Dance Man (next best 2.45) could also help to swell the betting bank ahead of tomorrow's Derby, for which a field of 18 remains after yesterday's final declarations. Markan, High King and Williamshakespeare were the horses to come out, although Saffron Walden, a leading figure in the ante-post market, could yet go to the French equivalent on Sunday if the ground at Epsom deteriorates further.