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Aaron previews the 2023 Essex Handicap (G3) from Oaklawn Park, then gives his top picks & long shots. The D. Wayne Lukas trainee Last Samurai is riding strong momentum after winning the Razorback Handicap (G3) last time out over this same course and distance, but will history repeat itself? Tell us YOUR thoughts in the Comments section!
Although Last Samurai is a millionaire multiple graded stakes winner, he’s never won consecutive races. He gets another shot, this time as the 5-2 program favorite, in the $500,000 Essex Handicap (G3) for older horses at 1 1/16 miles Saturday at Oaklawn.
Probable post time for the Essex, the ninth of 10 races, is 4:54 p.m. (Central). Racing begins at 12:35 p.m. The card also features the $200,000 Whitmore Stakes (G3) for older horses at 6 furlongs.
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The Essex is a major local prep for the $1 million Oaklawn Handicap (G2) April 22, a 1 1/8-mile race Last Samurai won in 2022. Last Samurai wouldn’t win again until his last start, a sparkling 1 ½-length score over West Will Power in the $600,000 Razorback Handicap (G3) at 1 1/16 miles Feb. 18 at Oaklawn. The victory, Last Samurai’s fifth in 23 career starts, boosted his career earnings to $1,607,639. It also generated a 119 Equibase Speed rating, highest of the 2022-2023 Oaklawn meeting.
The obvious question: Can Last Samurai flash the same form Saturday?
“I’m getting paid to make them better,” Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas, jokingly, said. “That’s what they pay me for, to make them better. Not to keep them there, but to get them better.”
Lukas began training Last Samurai following the 2022 Oaklawn Handicap. A son of Malibu Moon, Last Samurai opened his 5-year-old campaign with a fourth-place finish in the $3 million Pegasus World Cup Invitational (G1) at 1 1/8 miles Jan. 28 at Gulfstream Park. Last Samurai shined three weeks later in the Razorback for owner Kevin Horton of Marshall, Ark. (Willis Horton Racing).
“I hope I get some consistency out of him,” Lukas said.
In addition to the Last Samurai, the Essex features Grade 1 winner Classic Causeway for trainer Kenny McPeek, Grade 2 winner Silver Prospector (Steve Asmussen) and Grade 3 winners Rated R Superstar (Martin Villafranco) and Tawny Port and Forza Di Oro (Brad Cox).
Classic Causeway returns to dirt after making his final five starts last year on turf, highlighted by a front-running victory in the $1 million Belmont Derby (G1) at 1 ¼ miles July 9 at Belmont Park. In the runup to last year’s Kentucky Derby, Classic Causeway was a front-running winner of the $250,000 Sam F. Davis Stakes (G3) and $400,000 Tampa Bay Derby (G2). Both 1 1/16-mile Kentucky Derby dirt preps were at Tampa Bay Downs.
“We’re proud of what he did on the grass, but we don’t want to pigeonhole him as strictly a turf horse,” McPeek said. “We want to give him several races on the dirt again to try and see how he competes against the older dirt crop. He still needs to learn to rate himself and be more tactical, as opposed to pretty well being one-dimensional. When he leaves the gate, he wants to be in front. I would like to think that Flavien can get him to relax a little bit. We’ve been trying to practice this a bit with him, to get him to lay off horses and just wait, wait and finish and use that natural speed later in the race.”
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Defending champion Rated R Superstar, 10, is trying to become the oldest horse to win a two-turn stakes race at Oaklawn. Vittorio will be making his stakes debut for Hall of Fame trainer Bill Mott. Necker Island, approaching $1 million in career earnings, returns to a route for the first time since May for 2015 Oaklawn training champion Chris Hartman.
“The idea was the Oaklawn Mile,” Hartman said, referring to the $400,000 Grade 3 race April 1. “But the horse is doing so good, we didn’t want to wait around for the Oaklawn Mile. The idea was to get him back around two turns, so what’s an extra sixteenth. The horse is doing really good, so we thought we could see what he can do there.”
Silver Prospector exits a sharp Feb. 11 allowance victory at Oaklawn.
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