The Oaks, to be run for the 232nd time tomorrow, is actually the senior of the two Classics at Epsom, having been founded the year before the Derby. And indeed, the filly-only contest provided the pattern for the race that ultimately became the world's most famous, for four Derbys were run before its distance was extended from a mile to the 12 furlongs that had always been the Oaks trip.
But as far as the ability of the protagonists is concerned, the distaff event is the junior partner. The female of the thoroughbred species has long been recognised as largely less deadly than the male; even Pretty Polly, the best of them all, could not be ranked in the top 50 of all-time talent when measured against males.
Pretty Polly, winner of 22 of her 24 races, won her Oaks back in 1904 and was, uniquely for a filly, the best racehorse of her year at two, three and four. But for an Oaks winner to be judged better than the Derby winner of the same season is a rarity; since Pretty Polly proved herself superior to St Amant, only seven could come under consideration (even in mathematical ratings there is a degree of subjectivity) to have followed in her hoofprints.
On the eve of the ultimate single-sex prize for fillies, these amazons deserve to be named, in chronological order Rockfel (better than Bois Roussel in 1938), Godiva (Pont l'Eveque, 1940); Sun Chariot (Watling Street, 1942), Petite Etoile (Parthia, 1959), Pawneese (Empery 1976), Balanchine (Shaamit 1994) and, most recently, Ouija Board, who had North Light behind her when they met in the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe six years ago.
Fifteen are due to try for their place in the pantheon tomorrow. The favourite Aviate is trained by the man with the outstanding modern record in the race. Henry Cecil, with eight Oaks to his credit, also fields Timepiece and if either were to prevail, it would make him the second most successful trainer ever in the event, after Robert Robson, who sent out a dozen winners between 1802 and 1825.
In contrast, Cecil's former assistant David Lanigan, who helped the Warren Place maestro with the preparation of 2007 heroine Light Shift, will have not only his first Oaks runner, but his first runner in any Classic, in Meeznah, who earned her place in the spotlight by winning her maiden by nine lengths at Newmarket last month.
Lanigan, who set up on his own in Newmarket two years ago, is relishing the ambitious venture. "The plan was to go down a more conventional route, a maiden and then one of the trials," he said yesterday, "but our hand was rather forced when she bruised a foot early in the spring and it took longer to clear than we had anticipated.
"I did expect her to win at Newmarket, but she did it rather more comfortably than we had imagined, so we'll give her the chance in the big one. We've always thought a lot of her – she is a good, big, strong, scopey filly – and she did a piece of work last week that was very encouraging."
Meeznah is one of the outsiders, at 33-1. But the gamble in recent days has been on the once-raced Sajjhaa, now jostling Rumoush for second favouritism. One difference is that Sajjhaa, who won on her debut 14 days ago by seven lengths, is trained by a man with previous, Michael Jarvis, who scored with the almost-as-inexperienced Eswarah five years ago.
Victory for Cecil would be some compensation for the loss of the 1,000 Guineas after the disqualification of Jacqueline Quest, and for Marcus Tregoning, handler of Rumoush, a similar salve after the galling 2,000 Guineas success of Makfi, a cast-off from his stable.
And for Barry Hills, should Champagnelifestyle triumph, it would be the end of 38 years of Epsom hurt. The veteran trainer has neither a Derby nor an Oaks to his credit, despite some near misses, notably with Rheingold and Hawaiian Sound in the colts' race and Dibidale, Slightly Dangerous and, last year, High Heeled in the fillies'. Tomorrow will be his 36th shot at the Oaks.
In the card's other Grade One showpiece, the 10-runner Coronation Cup, last year's Derby and Oaks form are represented by Fame And Glory, runner-up to Sea The Stars in the former, and Sariska, winner of the latter.
Johnny Murtagh has been confirmed as rider of Saturday's Derby favourite Jan Vermeer, with Colm O'Donoghue on the Ballydoyle second string Midas Touch and Seamie Heffernan on the pacemaker At First Sight. The yard's Dante Stakes winner Cape Blanco will join Viscount Nelson in the Prix du Jockey-Club on Sunday.
Sue Montgomery's Nap
Sharedah (2.20 Lingfield) An opportunity looks to have been found for the Pivotal half-sister to Maraahel, a promising third on her debut three weeks ago despite a slow start, to add to her paddock value.
Newbury Street (2.40 Hamilton) Already a winner in this grade and races off the same mark as for his narrow victory two weeks ago, when he seemed to have a little in hand.
One to watch
High Ransom (M A Jarvis) Produced her best effort over 12 furlongs at Chepstow on Monday and should pay her way in middle-distance handicaps.
Where the money's going
Versatile Rite Of Passage, third in last year's Cheltenham Festival Bumper and the winner of the Irish November Handicap and four hurdle races, was cut yesterday for the Ascot Gold Cup, from 20-1 to 14-1 with Paddy Power.
Chris McGrath's Nap
Lady Eclair (4.40 Hamilton)Reuse content