Why I back US Army Ranger

 “Everyone is knocking this horse, but they shouldn’t ….If we hadn’t have ran Port Douglas, US Army Ranger would have been an eight-length winner and would be a very short price for the Derby.”

Interesting words from Aiden O’Brien the morning after the Chester Vase when assessing the performance of his main Derby hope US Army Ranger, who, up until 24 hours earlier, was a rather foolish short priced favourite for the Epsom Derby – based solely on reputation, good hope and a single – albeit impressive – maiden win.

This verbal endorsement from Mr. O’Brien carries some weight though, doesn’t it? Sure, we hear it often enough from these connections; the “best we ever had” slogan comes all too easy over their lips, as critics rightly point out. Yet, this time it stands in a different light, I feel. It goes deeper.

These words and the overall reaction coming out of the Ballydoyle camp after what was widely regarded as an underwhelming success of US Army Ranger at Chester, felt more like wounded pride to me. How dare you doubting this horse? How dare you doubting our judgement?

They really seem to believe in this lad. And they are vocal about it. So no surprise to hear Joseph O’Brien adding: “He (US Army Ranger) shouldn’t be able to do what he’s doing (at this stage of his career). He could be really good.”

But then, jumping on the defence of US Army Ranger is not necessary. What does AOB care about the nagging doubts many in the world of racing have about his star colt? Let the race in June speak for itself! But that’s not what’s happening here. Team Ballydoyle wants everyone to know how much they like US Army Ranger.

Maybe that is because they have largely an underwhelming crop of three year old colts on their hands this season. Though, that might be better judged at the end of the season, given all those tremendously well bred colts walking around the paddock at County Tipperary every morning. Least we forget sometimes these horses just need a bit of time and suddenly appear to improve dramatically from one run to the next.

So why are they pushing this lad so much? All hot air? All calculated risk? All in the name of commercial success for the future stallion US Army Ranger? Yes, maybe.

Steep Learning Curve

Plenty of different opinions have been voiced in the aftermath of the Chester Vase. US Army Ranger scrambled home against stable mate Port Douglas, prevailing by a narrow margin. The ride on the runner-up came under scrutiny subsequently. Why did Seamie Heffernan not shut the door on the inside, why did he not go for his whip in the final furlong? All legit questions.

But the answer to those questions – does it actually matter in the grand scheme of things? What would have changed if Port Douglas would have prevailed by a short head? I reckon not much, expect for those who were the unlucky folks with a wager on him in the Chester Vase.

What this race did change was the general perception of US Army Ranger. Bookies, punters and racing experts alike clearly cooled off; three minutes was all it took, the sexy horse was not so sexy any more.

US Army Ranger himself won’t care much about all the fuzz. For him it was all about experience. Experience he doesn’t have much. He didn’t race as a juvenile. In that sense history is against him. A Derby winner unraced as a two year old is not all that common.

That aside there was plenty to like about his debut run at the Curragh in April. He was clearly green and probably didn’t really know he was in a race. Under a hands and heels ride he prevailed with plenty in hand, which was probably no more than a good workout. To step up from there right into a Group 3 at the odd track that Chester is, with huge crowds as far the eye can see – it must have been a bit of a culture shock for him.

Mind, the Chester Vase was probably not that strong a race quality wise, with only stable mate Port Douglas a serious rival. This Port Douglas, an experienced horse, with five runs under his belt at the time, already a Group 2 winner, provided a first stern test. US Army Ranger didn’t pass with flying flags. He passed with merit.

It is fair to assume he would have learned more in this one race at this strange, noisy, crowded, ever turning Chester track than he would have in two or three races elsewhere. That is the benefit of taking horses over there. And that’s the reason why Aiden O’Brien loves to bring his top prospects over there. They learn allot and he learns allot about them.

Did US Army Ranger show enough to be a real Derby contender, though? It always depends on the perspective. On the pure visual impact of the performance and on what was in the race rating wise he probably did not. If you believe he can learn and improve big time for this run, which – one shouldn’t forget – was only his second career start – he probably is one.

Now actuality has caught up with me – the essay above may be slightly outdated, given I wrote it the day after the Chester Vase and just forgot to publish it. But then has so much changed in the meantime?

To an extend, yes. There wasn’t much talk about USAR in recent weeks, and the fact that Aiden O’Brien saddles four other stable mates on D-day doesn’t scream confidence. Yet I stick to what I said and felt back then. He’s the one I want, he’s the one they all have to beat.

What about the opposition?

Something between underwhelming and decent. John Gosden’s Dante winner Wings Of Desire is clearly talented. He beat Aiden O’Brien’s Deauville in a tight finish. It remains to be seen what this form is worth. For all what it is now it doesn’t look all that impressive, though Wings Of Desire is certain to improve for going back up in trip.

Never underestimate Ande Fabre. His experienced Sea The Stars colt Cloth Of Stars is two from two this year. He never tried the trip before but should be fine. I rate him the main danger in this field.

Lingfield Derby Trial winner Humphrey Bogart appears to be a one paced individual and was probably lucky to win anyway, given third placed  Across The Stars was full of running but never got a chance in the closing stages. He’s the better prospect of the two, and Kieren Fallon’s glooming words are to note.

Hazard landed the Ballysax Stakes at Leopardstown. He’s an exciting prospect, the form works out well and he is one of the more likely candidates to be in the shake-up, though has to prove his stamina over the Derby trip. A slightly underwhelming Idaho finished runner-up in the Ballysax. Clearly talented, but this big horse may not be ideally suited to Epsom I fear.

The Stoute camp really likes their leading prospect Ulysses. An impressive maiden win last time out, is still a dramatic step up in class. Irish Derby Trial winner Moonlight Magic has at least Group form in the book, and those gutsy types trained by Jim Bolger can often outrun their price tag.

 

Quite a few people jumped on the Port Douglas bandwagon right after the Chester Vase. And it’s easy to see why. He’s a big price and you can argue he was at least the moral winner of the Chester Vase. His performance there must give him a fair shot at the Derby.

Some arguments against could be: that was his sixth career start – how much more has he to offer? And is he best as a fresh horse? His three strongest performances came either on his debut or after a break – though he’s been off since Chester and that might be enough.

Summary

Is the form of anyone in today’s Derby field so much better than what US Army Ranger has achieved? Not really if you ask me. But to cut a long story short: this years Derby shapes like an underwhelming renewal. Unless something steps up or blows us away on the day itself. Can US Army Ranger be the one?

Of course he can! Look, I loved his debut run, I believe he learned plenty at Chester and I believe in the words coming out of the Ballydoyle camp stating this guys is massively talented. Am I naive? Possibly.

I am also aware of the fact there are plenty of stark opinions out there contrary to anything I argue here. That’s fine. This game is in fact all about opinions. Often different opinions. It’s the salt in the soup. And admittedly, I’m getting it often enough wrong. With that I’m certainly not alone, though.

Still, at 13/2 it is hard for me to pass on US Army Ranger for all the mentioned reasons. If he is as good a horse as I hope he is, this certainly is a big price. Particularly if you take the reasons on board why Chester was less a disaster as many like to think.

Photo: all credit Skysports.com

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