05/31/2017 3:40PM

Rhododendron heads Epsom Oaks


Aidan O’Brien and the Coolmore group won two classics last weekend, the Irish 2000 Guineas with Churchill and the Irish 1000 Guineas with Winter, and in Rhododendron they have the favorite for another one, the Group 1 Epsom Oaks on Friday in England.

Rhododendron is one of 10 fillies entered to race 1 1/2 miles over a course that took rain earlier this week but was expected to be rated good for the Oaks card, which also includes the Group 1 Coronation Cup for older horses.

O’Brien also entered Alluringly, who took mid-week antepost betting, and the longshot Pocketfullofdreams. Adding flavor to the Oaks is a rare American shipper for the race, Kentucky Oaks runner-up Daddys Lil Darling.

As for Rhododendron, the daughter of Galileo has won half her six starts, ending her 2-year-old campaign with a victory in the Group 1 Fillies Mile at Newmarket. That’s the racecourse at which Rhododendron began her 3-year-old season as well, finishing second to Winter in what was seen at the time as an upset. Winter, however, totally dominated the Irish 1000 Guineas last weekend, and Rhododendron lost nothing in that defeat.

Rhododendron long has been pointed to the Epsom Oaks, and since her dam, Halfway to Heaven, was a Group 1 winner over 1 1/4 miles, the assumption is farther will be better for Rhododendron.

There’s no doubt Enable, the widespread second choice in the betting, will stay the Oaks’s 12 furlongs. Enable is one of two entrants trained by John Gosden. He also starts Coronet, who exits a win in the 1 7/16-mile Cheshire Oaks, where she beat Alluringly by 1 3/4 lengths. By Nathaniel and out of a Sadler’s Wells mare, Enable ran one mile in her lone start at 2 and was third over 1 1/4 miles in a conditions race at Newbury to get her legs under her early this year.

Sobetsu, the Godolphin filly who won the Group 1 Prix Saint-Alary in her last start, had been expected to contest the French Oaks, but her connections rerouted her to Epsom for Friday’s race after rain softened the course. Sobetsu was fifth behind Rhododendron in the Fillies Mile while racing over a course firmer than she prefers.

Daddys Lil Darling arrived from Kentucky on May 24 and got in a workout at Epsom on Saturday, according to trainer Ken McPeek. Olivier Peslier, who rides her in the Oaks, was aboard for her exercise Friday.

“Since then, she’s just trained light into the race,” McPeek said Wednesday. “She’s really, really doing well. She’s done fantastic since she got here.”

Highland Reel heads Coronation

Highland Reel has put forth top-level performances in 1 1/2-mile grass races all over the world, but wet, laboring courses are his kryptonite. He caught such footing at Meydan Race Course in March and finished last of seven in the $6 million Sheema Classic, but as long as no more rain falls at Epsom, Highland Reel should be fine for the Group 1 Coronation Cup on Friday.

Highland Reel is the favorite for the 1 1/2-mile Coronation Cup, a race that includes his 4-year-old full brother, Idaho, and brings out George Strawbridge’s Journey for his first start of 2017.

Highland Reel’s most recent win came in the Breeders’ Cup Turf, where he dashed to the front and never looked back. Such tactics generally are more effective at venues like Santa Anita than in European racing, but free-running Highland Reel won the King George last summer at Ascot and was second last fall in the Arc.

Idaho makes his 4-year-old debut after ending his 3-year-old season with a disappointing fifth in the Canadian International at Woodbine. At his best last year, he was second to Harzand in the Irish Derby, and Idaho has Epsom experience, too, having finished third in the Derby a year ago.

The mare Journey caught fire the second half of last year and ended her season with a romping win in the Group 1 British Champions Fillies and Mares Stakes at Ascot.