Epsom Oaks: Gesture holds the strongest hand

The Oaks is the feature race on Friday.

Timeform's Tony McFadden assesses the main contenders in the Epsom Oaks...

"Considering Secret Gesture's lightly-raced profile and the effortless style of her reappearance win, it won't come as a surprise to hear that she still retains the 'p', a symbol signifying that further progress is likely..."

You will often hear about owners dreaming of big-race success; however, I would imagine Sheikh Fahad Al Thani - the main man behind Qatar Racing Limited - is capable of conjuring up a particularly vivid mental image of winning the Oaks, for his beloved silks have already been carried to Epsom Classic glory. Or at least they have if you squint a bit whilst watching a replay of the 1980 Oaks.

Carrying the crimson colours of the late Dick Hollingsworth - whose silks live on with Mark Dixon and his horse Skilful - Bireme and Willie Carson travelled well before forging clear inside the final couple of furlongs to score by two lengths; Sheikh Fahad will surely be imagining Secret Gesture, the most recent of his high-profile purchases, replicating that smooth victory in his almost identical claret silks.

Secret Gesture only had two outings as a juvenile, creating a good impression as she won the latter of those starts, a one-mile maiden at Newbury in testing conditions, by a comfortable two and three quarter lengths. However, the stoutly-bred daughter of Galileo was always likely to be seen to better effect as a three-year-old and she certainly made an impressive return to action in the Lingfield Oaks Trial, slamming her rivals by upwards of ten lengths, drawing clear on the bridle and winning with plenty in hand. 

It was presumably that emphatic success which persuaded Qatar Racing Limited to add the Ralph Beckett-trained filly to their burgeoning string and, say what you like about their purchasing methods, they clearly have good taste: Secret Gesture enters the Oaks as Timeform's top-rated filly. 

Considering Secret Gesture's lightly-raced profile and the effortless style of her reappearance win, it won't come as a surprise to hear that she still retains the 'p', a symbol signifying that further progress is likely. Ralph Beckett has proven his prowess with fillies in the past, famously producing Look Here to spring a surprise in the 2008 Oaks, and you can be sure that Secret Gesture will arrive at Epsom primed to perform to her best.

Secret Gesture, however, is by no means the only filly in the contest that is capable of better. Chief among her rivals open to significant improvement is Liber Nauticus, the well-regarded daughter of Azamour who attracted substantial ante-post support on the back of an encouraging win in a strong Goodwood maiden.

Making her seasonal reappearance in the Musidora Stakes - one of the premier trial races for the Oaks - Liber Nauticus was sent off as an odds-on favourite for the in-form Sir Michael Stoute yard. Although her one-and-a-half length success over Romantic Settings, a Musselburgh handicap winner, has been described in some quarters as 'workmalike', Liber Nauticus won with more in hand than the winning margin would suggest. Tellingly, Ryan Moore was very sparing with his use of the whip, pushing her out hands-and-heels in the main, and she is entitled to come on plenty, especially when you consider it was only the second start of her career.

Although the bare form is well short of what is required to win an average renewal of the Oaks, Liber Nauticus does appeal as a very smart filly in the making. The big question, however, is will the Oaks come too soon in her development? It is probably a question that not even Sir Michael Stoute or Ryan Moore can honestly answer at this stage as she hasn't been fully tested on the racecourse - and probably won't have been asked for everything on the gallops - and Epsom will provide the acid test.

The Aidan O'Brien-trained Moth shot towards the head of the ante-post market following an encouraging display in the 1000 Guineas at Newmarket and the daughter of Galileo is certainly bred to relish the increased emphasis on stamina at Epsom. Something of a late developer having made little impression on either start as a juvenile, Moth showed a sharp turn of foot to get off the mark in a fillies' maiden at the Curragh before taking her form to a whole different level when finishing a staying-on third at Newmarket. Given her form, pedigree and connections, it would rank as little surprise were Moth to play a leading role on Friday.

There was a suspicion that Hughie Morrison's Banoffee had benefitted from enjoying the run of the race when making a successful debut at Newbury. However, she certainly didn't have everything go her own way at Chester. Riding Banoffee for the first time, Kieren Fallon had to wait for a split as he entered the short Chester straight with plenty of rivals still to pass, but his filly displayed a sharp turn of foot, picking up well to mow down the opposition in good style. That level of form falls well short of what is required to win an Oaks, but we have yet to see the best of Banoffee and she can't be ruled out, for all others make greater appeal.

An outsider that may perhaps be of interest, particularly if the rain persists, is The Lark. Michael Bell's filly is certainly bred for the job being closely related to Sariska, the winner of this race in 2009, and she shaped well on her return, finishing third having been left too much to do. She looks sure to stay one and a half miles and is a likely improver granted a test of stamina.

As you might expect in the Epsom Oaks, there are plenty of fillies that look capable of leaving the bare form well behind granted a stamina test at one and a half miles. Secret Gesture is just about the standard-bearer based on her emphatic, wide-margin win at Lingfield and she can get her career in the colours of Qatar Racing Limited off to a dream start.

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