HOT SPRINGS, AR – Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert sent Mor Spirit from his Southern California base in search of a little class relief, and the 4-year-old colt found it in the 69th edition of the $250,000 Essex Handicap at Oaklawn, where the prohibitive 1-2 favorite bested a tough field of seven others aged four and up.
Mor Spirit, who was making his third start of the year after competing in the Grade 1 Malibu Stakes and the Grade 2 San Antonio Handicap at Santa Anita, covered the 1 1/16 mile fast track in 1:41.62 under Hall of Fame rider Mike Smith to prevail by 2 1/2 lengths. The final time for Michael Lund Peterson’s son of Eskendereya was the fastest the Essex has been run in 30 years.
Nonetheless, it wasn’t easy for Mor Spirit, who was challenged into the far turn and didn’t get his head in front until the field turned for home. He dug down deep under steady urging while Domain’s Rap, a 9-year-old gelding making his 63rd career start and being ridden by Shaun Bridgmohan, closed strongly down the stretch to just nose out the Todd Pletcher-trained Madefromlucky and jockey Javier Castellano.
The Pennsylvania-bred Mor Spirit improved to 4-5-0 from 10 starts and increased his earnings to $886,400.
Following Mor Spirit, Domain’s Rap, and Madefromlucky to the wire were Dazzling Gem, Secret Passage, Shotgun Kowboy, and Dalmore.
Mor Spirit returned $3, $2.80, and $2.40. Domain’s Rap brought back $6.40 and $3.20, while Madefromlucky paid $3 to show.
$250,000 Essex Handicap Quotes
Jockey Mike Smith, Mor Spirit – “Brilliant trip, and he was leading up to an effort like this, to be honest with you. His first race back (since the Kentucky Derby, when fourth in the Grade 1 Malibu) was seven-eighths, which was too short for him. But he still ran sneaky well. Came back his second race going long, which he wants to do. But he ran into Hoppertunity, who’s a Grade 1 winner. He ran extremely well in that race. I actually had to go after someone probably a little too early. If I had to do it over again, I probably would have waited longer with him. Not sure the outcome would have been different. And today, he was ready. Really ready. He jumped well and he was on the bridle the whole way and won really nice.”
“I was really happy where I was at. He put me right into the race. I actually was going to try and be a little more aggressive and take the lead. But he was in such a good rhythm where he was, I was happy with that. Heading for home, a horse came up to his outside, he dug in and I just stayed a little busy on him. Just because it’s his first time here. You’re so close to the crowd here, which is pretty cool, but sometimes, it will get a horse looking around a little bit. So I just stayed more or less just after him to keep his attention, and he won very nice today.”
Did you happen to see the pictures of him schooling (when he got up on his hind legs in the infield)? “Yes I did, so I was glad we saddled inside… I’ve never seen him act that way. I think that infield just kind of got him feeling good. Jimmy (assistant trainer Jimmy Barnes) said he didn’t really get hot, he just wouldn’t stop rearing up.”
Trainer Federico Villafranco, Domain’s Rap – “He ran great, ain’t no doubt about it. He’s 9 years old. We think the world of him. He’s a good horse.”
Jockey Ramon Vazquez, Domain’s Rap – “I just wanted to let him run his race from off the speed a little bit. I waited for my move, and he ran well. My thought was just to sit off the speed and have one move and see what happened. He ran a good race.”
Jockey Javier Castellano, Madefromlucky – “I thought I did finish second. I had a perfect trip. That’s where I wanted to be; I didn’t want to be too far back. He’s that kind of horse. If you take back a little too far, he’s just a grinder. He takes a little momentum. He broke well out of the gate, put me in good position. He ran so well. I’m so proud.”