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Essex Handicap Preview: Baffert and Pletcher Square Off at Oaklawn

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Bob Baffert won’t just be invading for the Grade 2 $900,000 Rebel Stakes on Saturday, as he brings in Mor Spirit for the $250,000 Essex Handicap as well.  After a disappointing 3-year-old campaign, Mor Spirit has found his stride a bit as of late.  Last time out, he finished second in the Grade 2 San Antonio Stakes at Santa Anita behind Hoppertunity, who is heading to Dubai off that race.  Mike Smith will have the mount when Mor Spirit takes off from post 2.

Trainer Todd Pletcher will also join the Essex Handicap party as he brings up Madefromlucky from South Florida.  Madefromlucky has failed to win a race since his 3-year-old score in the Grade 2 West Virginia Derby, but he’s been facing tough company as of late.  Last time out, he finished a solid third in the Poseidon Stakes at Gulfstream Park on Pegasus World Cup Day.  As a 3-year-old, Madefromlucky ran twice at Oaklawn, finishing second in the Grade 2 Rebel Stakes and fourth in the Grade 1 Arkansas Derby.

Local stars Shotgun Kowboy and Domain’s Rap have each won two races at this year’s meet and could prove tough on the shippers.  Dalmore, Dazzling Gem, Fear the Cowboy, and Secret Passage round out the field for this year Essex Handicap.

Top Choice

#2 Mor Spirit – Last year, Mor Spirit had Kentucky Derby hopes, but he never developed into that kind of horse.  After a poor effort in the Derby, he took a long break, returning and running a good fourth in the Grade 1 Malibu Stakes to round out his year.  Last time out, he was solid in the San Antonio, finishing a close second to Hoppertunity.  If Hoppertunity was in this race today, he’d probably be very low odds and almost certainly the favorite.  Bob Baffert traditionally ships to Oaklawn with great success, and he could take both the Essex and Rebel on Saturday.

Horses to Use in Multi Race Wagers

#8 Madefromlucky – This hard-knocking horse returns to Oaklawn, where he finished second in the Rebel to American Pharoah as a 3-year-old.  He definitely won’t be facing a horse of that caliber, which means he’ll have a decent shot to win this race.  The downside to Madefromlucky is that he hasn’t won since the Grade 2 West Virginia Derby in 2015, but the good news is that this spot seems to be one of the easier ones he’s been in since that win.  With these connections, he always warrants respect.

#1 Shotgun Kowboy – This is definitely one of the coolest horses on the Oaklawn backside!  The 5-year-old Oklahoma bred always shows up with a big effort and is an undefeated 2-for-2 so far in 2017.  Both of his wins have come in Oaklawn allowance races, and last time out may have been his best effort ever, as he won by nearly four lengths while going wire to wire.  He’ll most likely try to use those tactics again as he draws the rail here, and if they leave him alone on the lead, he’ll be tough to catch.

#7 Domain’s Rap – This local hero is 2-for-3 this year, with his only loss coming to Gun Runner in the Razorback Handicap last time out.  He kicked off his Oaklawn season with a strong win in the Fifth Season Stakes, and two races back, he dominated an allowance field that featured several quality horses.  This spot is much more logical for him to compete in than last time out against Gun Runner, so I expect him to have a big chance.  We’ll see if he matches up better with a lower grade of shippers this time out.

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Exotic Plays

#4 Dalmore – He seems like a logical underneath play, as he’s finished on the board in past graded stakes races.  Last time out, he struggled to finish sixth in the San Antonio, but two races back, he was only beaten 3 3/4 lengths by Midnight Storm, who finished second last weekend in the Grade 1 Santa Anita Handicap.  He can undoubtedly compete with these types.

Party Crashers

#3 Dazzling Gem – Last time out, he nearly won the Grade 3 Mineshaft Handicap at Fair Grounds, and this race seems fairly similar to that one.  However, the shippers here look a bit stronger, and it’s hard to say if he can match the kind of effort that he gave then.  This horse has had several chances to get it done against stakes company and come up short.  However, his price could become inflated here, as several others will gather attention over him.  He’s worth a play at big odds.

Throw Outs

#6 Fear the Cowboy – He might be a little bit outclassed in a spot like this, but he’s been successful in the past at smaller tracks and in smaller stakes races.  We’ll see if he can step up here and make a name for himself.

#5 Secret Passage – He had a lot of hype going into his 3-year-old season last year, but injuries set him back and he never lived up to the expectations.  He’s run very well at Oaklawn this year, and last time out, he won nicely in an allowance prep.  This is the logical next step for him, but I’m not sure he’s good enough.

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