Fugue tunes up for Oaks challenge


The Knavesmire

The theme stated so boldly over its opening bars may yet recur inexorably through the Classic season, but some ears are beginning to pick up a developing counterpoint. Having already won the 1,000 and 2,000 Guineas, horses trained by Aidan O'Brien dominate betting on both Epsom Classics. Yesterday, however, the Ballydoyle trainer brought an odds-on favourite to York for an unceremonious thrashing in the last major trial for the Investec Oaks, and today he will find out where he stands with the two colts closest to Camelot in the Derby market. If either Bonfire or Mandaean remotely approaches the performance of The Fugue, certainly, O'Brien will know that horses trained on British soil do not intend to cede its most precious turf without a fight.

The Fugue had disclosed plenty of ability in two previous starts, impressive in her maiden last year and then contriving fourth in the 1,000 Guineas. The big concern, coming into the Tattersalls Musidora Stakes, was that this handsome but unseasoned filly only had 10 days to absorb the physical and mental impact of that generous effort. Twirl, meanwhile, was strongly fancied to lay down a marker on behalf of her Ballydoyle stablemates, Kissed and Maybe, who continued to dispute Oaks favouritism even after an arresting rehearsal by Vow at Lingfield last Saturday.

However, while Twirl readily took charge at the top of the straight, she was soon in trouble – herself, it must be said, still looking green – as William Buick coasted alongside on The Fugue. Unlike Lord Lloyd Webber, whose silks he was wearing, Buick tends to abjure theatricality, but this time he could not resist restraining The Fugue to a nearly satirical extent before finally putting young Joseph O'Brien out of his misery on Twirl. Under the most perfunctory encouragement, The Fugue bounded four and a half lengths clear to earn an Oaks quote of 5-1 from Betfred. Coral promoted her to outright favourite at 7-2.

John Gosden, her trainer, admitted that he had felt his hand rather forced, in turning The Fugue out again so soon. But perhaps it was sooner the hand of fate, so marginal had been her escape from a more serious cut in the Guineas. "It skimmed down the tendon sheath, like peeling an orange," he said. "But luckily there had been no puncture."

He stressed that The Fugue had relished the drying conditions, and her participation at Epsom duly remains contingent on the going. "If there's a lot of rain, she'll revert to France instead," Gosden said. "She's got those dainty, ballerina feet, so the ground is very important to her."

The Fugue clearly has plenty of speed, and must travel the best part of two more furlongs at Epsom. Gosden remembered her dam – who has already produced a winner at two miles, albeit by a somewhat stouter influence than Dansili – finishing second in the Ribblesdale Stakes (over a mile and a half) when the royal meeting was transferred here. "She was diminutive, but gutsy and full of heart, and was only beaten a nose," he said.

The better ground was also rated a key factor in the shock success of Tiddliwinks in the other Group race on the opening day, albeit a couple of fancied runners did not show their best form – and Society Rock's strong finish for third, first time out, qualified him as a more obvious contender for the big sprints at Royal Ascot.

It was the desperate ground at Chester last week that persuaded Andrew Balding to postpone the trial of Bonfire, at the cost of six days' extra recuperation. As ever, the relative improvement available to lightly raced three-year-olds makes the Betfred Dante Stakes a particularly hazardous betting medium. Bonfire and Mandaean at least showed elite calibre when fast-tracked to Group One company at two, but the Godolphin three-year-olds have been performing too unevenly for anyone to know what to expect of their French import; while advance publicity has rendered Bonfire dubious value.

It is possible that O'Brien is sending Ernest Hemingway over largely as a "sighter", on behalf of Camelot and others, but this 10-length maiden winner should adore the long straight here. O'Brien's rivals must accept the depressing possibility that even the third or fourth Derby colt at Ballydoyle could be better than the outstanding three-year-old in their care.

Neutrals, accordingly, will doubtless hope for a fresh theme in the Classic picture – whether through the mildly sensational promotion of Mickael Barzalona to ride Mandaean, ahead of Frankie Dettori, or the emergence of a genuine Derby colt at Kingsclere.

Turf account

Chris McGrath's Nap

Cape Tribulation (4.45 York) Bordering on top class over hurdles, winning at Cheltenham and Aintree this spring, and able to return to the Flat with a fairly prehistoric rating.

Next best

Mijhaar (3.00 York) Has shown Group quality in a very light career to date; shorter trip on his return may accelerate fulfilment.

One to watch

Hoofalong (Mick Easterby) Promised plenty of excitement for his owners – who include Lee Westwood – when second on debut at York yesterday.

Where the money's going

Main Sequence is 14-1 from 20-1 with William Hill for the Investec Derby, while Overturn is 25-1 from 33-1 for the Gold Cup at Royal Ascot.

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