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Aaron previews the 2023 Oaklawn Handicap (G2) from Oaklawn Park, then gives his top picks & long shots. The Todd Pletcher-trained Charge It is the morning line favorite against a tough field featuring all stakes winners, including 3 Grade 1 champions. Will he prevail or falter? Tell us YOUR thoughts in the Comments section!
Willis Horton Racing’s Last Samurai can become just the third horse to sweep Oaklawn’s three most lucrative two-turn races for older horses in the same year with a victory in Saturday’s $1 million Oaklawn Handicap (G2) at 1 1/8 miles.
The Oaklawn Handicap, which drew a strong field of seven, highlights a 12-race card that also features the $200,000 Bath House Row Stakes for 3-year-olds at 1 1/8 miles and the inaugural $150,000 Valley of the Vapors Stakes for 3-year-old fillies at 1 mile. Racing begins at 12:10 p.m. (Central), with probable post for the Oaklawn Handicap, the 10th race, 5:06 p.m.
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Last Samurai won the 2022 Oaklawn Handicap (G2) for trainer Dallas Stewart and now-deceased Arkansas owner Willis Horton. Returning to Hot Springs late last year with Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas, Last Samurai has made three starts at the 2022-2023 Oaklawn meeting, finishing second, beaten a neck, in the $200,000 Tinsel Stakes at 1 1/8 miles Dec. 17 and winning the $600,000 Razorback Handicap (G3) at 1 1/16 miles Feb. 18 and the $500,000 Essex Handicap (G3) at 1 1/16 miles March 18.
Swift Ruler won the Southland Handicap (now known as the Essex), Razorback and Oaklawn Handicap in 1966. Alternation swept the Essex, Razorback and Oaklawn Handicap in 2012
In addition to Last Samurai, Saturday’s field also has four other millionaires (Rated R Superstar, Stilleto Boy, Proxy and Classic Causeway) and three Grade 1 winners (Stilleto Boy, Proxy and Classic Causeway) entered.
“Very, very tough,” Lukas said. “We’ve gone from winning the Essex to probably fourth choice in the Handicap. The weights are of no consequence at all. He (racing secretary Pat Pope) has put them all where everybody’s happy. It’s a very, very tough race. But for a million dollars, it should be.”
Lukas has won the Oaklawn Handicap a record four times, including 2014 with champion Will Take Charge for Horton. Last Samurai, who is now campaigned by Horton’s son, Kevin, would set a single-season Oaklawn record for purse earnings with a victory. Magnum Moon bankrolled $1,140,000 in 2018. Last Samurai, fueled by consecutive victories for the first time in his 24-race career, has earned $705,425 at the 2022-2023 meeting.
“He’s ready,” Lukas said.
Program favorite Charge It adds blinkers for Hall of Fame trainer Todd Pletcher, who won the Oaklawn Handicap in 2007 with Lawyer Ron and again in 2015 with Race Day. The speedy Charge It finished second in the $1 million Florida Derby (G1) at 1 1/8 miles last April at Gulfstream Park and completed an abbreviated 2022 campaign (foot issue) with a 23-length victory in the $250,000 Dwyer Stakes (G3) for 3-year-olds at 1 mile July 2 at Belmont Park. He also ran 17th in the Kentucky Derby, just his fourth career start.
Charge It, as the odds-on favorite, exits a runner-up finish in the $200,000 Gulfstream Park Mile (G2) March 4 at Gulfstream Park.
“He’s always been a little bit of a curious colt,” Pletcher said. “We contemplated putting blinkers on him after the Florida Derby last year. We just didn’t think doing in the Kentucky Derby was the right move and then came back and won the Dwyer so impressively. It’s hard to make a change off that, but it’s something that’s been in the back of our mind. We’ve worked him with them since his last race and I think they may make a difference.”
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The speedy Classic Causeway was beaten a length in the Essex, which marked his return 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. Classic Causeway, then on the Kentucky Derby trail earlier in the year, was a front-running winner of two 1 1/16-mile dirt stakes at Tampa Bay Downs – $250,000 Sam F. Davis (G3) and the $400,000 Tampa Bay Derby (G2). The Essex was the 4-year-old debut of Classic Causeway, who is trained by Kenny McPeek.
“He ran super,” McPeek said. “He’s such a hard knocker. We made the decision to give him a couple of more tries on the dirt. We didn’t necessarily want to pigeonhole him as a grass horse. He just showed how versatile he is, just how really talented he is, and how fast he is. This horse will make a great stallion someday. Hopefully, not soon. Just a really, really good horse. I think he’s spot on for the Oaklawn Handicap.”
Stilleto Boy and Proxy finished 1-2 in the $500,000 Santa Anita Handicap (G1) March 4 at Santa Anita Handicap. Stilleto Boy, who broke his maiden at the 2021 Oaklawn meeting when with trainer Doug Anderson of Hot Springs, will be cutting back to 1 1/8 miles after edging Proxy by a neck in the 1 ¼-mile Santa Anita Handicap, among the country’s most prestigious races for older horses.
“We’re the inside speed,” trainer Ed Moger Jr. said. “I know there’s a lot of speed outside of us. We’re looking forward to it. We like him in there.”
Proxy is already a Grade 1 winner at 1 1/8 miles, taking the $750,000 Clark Stakes Nov. 25 at Churchill Downs for breeder/owner Godolphin LLC and trainer Michael Stidham.
Stidham said Proxy will be racing in cheek pieces, a vertical shadow roll, for the first time in the Oaklawn Handicap. Stidham said he wants the son of Tapit more focused early after lagging behind in the Santa Anita Handicap and the $3 million Pegasus World Cup Invitational (G1) for older horses at 1 1/8 miles Jan. 28 at Gulfstream Park. Proxy finished fifth in the Pegasus, just behind Stilleto Boy (third) and Last Samurai (fourth).
“A couple of races, especially the Pegasus, he got so far back that he just had no chance and that was kind of a speed-favoring, biased racetrack that hurt our chances,” Stidham said. “But he was the only one that was actually, even though he didn’t hit the board that day, he was the only one making up any ground at the end.”
Senor Buscador, in his 2023 debut, recorded an easy victory in the $75,000 Curribot Handicap for older horses at 1 1/16 miles March 5 at Sunland Park for trainer Todd Fincher. Senor Buscador recorded his biggest career victory to date in the $300,000 Ack Ack Stakes (G3) at 1 mile Oct. 1 at Churchill Downs.
Rated R Superstar will be making his fourth appearance in the Oaklawn Handicap after finishing sixth in 2019, eighth in 2021 and seventh last year. Rated R Superstar, a 10-year-old gelding, is trying to become the oldest horse to win a two-turn stakes race at Oaklawn in what could be his final career start in Hot Springs.
Rated R Superstar, a multiple graded stakes winner, finished fourth in the Essex and seventh in the Razorback earlier this year for trainer Martin Villafranco and four-time Oaklawn leading owner Danny Caldwell.
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