The $500,000, Grade 3 Essex Handicap at Oaklawn Park brings together a field of 10 horses with a combined $9 million in career earnings between them. Leading the field in that category is 2022 Essex winner Rated R Superstar at $1.8 million, entering the race off a fourth-place finish in the Grade 3 Razorback Handicap last month. The Razorback was won by Last Samurai, which boosted his earnings to $1.6 million. Next is Silver Prospector, no slouch with $1.1 million in career earnings, including the Grade 3 2020 Southwest Stakes at Oaklawn. Classic Causeway has banked $1.1 million, the bulk of that earned when winning the Grade 1 Belmont Derby Invitational Stakes on the grass last summer. Call Me Fast enters a stakes for the first time as he tries for his third straight win at the meeting. Also entering graded stakes competition for the first time is Vittorio, who finished second in his most recent race, which followed eight months off. Forza Di Oro led from the start in the Grade 3 Louisiana Stakes at Fair Grounds in late January before fading to third, and he attempts to improve off that effort in his third race off a layoff. The remaining three entrants appear a bit overmatched. They are Keystone Field (seventh in the Razorback in his most recent race), Necker Island (third in an allowance race last month), and Tawny Port, whose last win came in the Grade 3 Ohio Derby last June.
Main win contenders:
Silver Prospector has won more than one-quarter of the main-track races he’s entered, six of 23 to be exact, including two at Oaklawn. Those two wins are the reason he may be the one to beat in this year’s Essex Handicap. The first of the pair of wins over the track came in the 2020 Southwest Stakes at the 1 1/16-mile distance of the Essex when he earned a then career-best 107 Equibase Speed Figure. Following poor efforts in the 2020 Rebel Stakes and 2020 Arkansas Derby, Silver Prospector skipped the Kentucky Derby and took five months off. Winning his first start back, it appeared the horse was ready for the big time but then he went on a nine-race losing streak. That ended in the Steve Sexton Mile Stakes last May where Silver Prospector earned a career-best 113 figure. He then lost three straight to end his 2022 campaign and took 3 ½ months off. Trainer Steve Asmussen added blinkers for the Fifth Season Stakes in January of this year, but coming back from that time off, the horse wasn’t ready to run his best. However, in his most recent start on Feb. 11, Silver Prospector bounced back with a fine effort to win by nearly four lengths under Ricardo Santana Jr., who rides again. Making his third start off a layoff and having improved to a 103 figure last month, it appears Silver Prospector is in line to repeat his big 113 figure from last year’s Steve Sexton Mile effort and that could be good enough to win the 2023 Essex Handicap.
Last Samurai won the Razorback Handicap last month and did so authoritatively with a career-best 119 Equibase figure. As a 5-year-old, it is quite a feat to run faster than at any previous point in his career, so we might not expect that fast of a race to be repeated. However, considering Last Samurai won the 2022 Oaklawn Handicap last April with a 108 figure and just missed in the Tinsel Stakes this past December, with a 106 figure, either of those efforts repeated here would give him a strong chance to win a stakes race for the second time at the meeting.
Rated R Superstar enters this year’s Essex on a very similar pattern to when winning the race last year. In 2022, he finished fifth of eight in the Razorback Handicap one month earlier with a 104 figure before earning a career-best 115 figure winning the Essex. This year, Rated R Superstar finished fourth of eight in the Razorback last month with a 100 figure. If he shows the same improvement as last year we can expect him to run fast enough to earn a 111 figure. That would be very competitive with both Silver Prospector and with Last Samurai if both run as expected, leading to a very close and very exciting finish in this year’s Essex.
The rest of the field (with best representative Equibase Speed Figure): Call Me Fast (103), Classic Causeway (112 – on turf), Forza Di Oro (105), Keystone Field (103), Necker Island (108), Tawny Port (105) and Vittorio (107).
Rated R Superstar
Note: For any exacta tickets played, consider Vittorio for the second (runner-up) position.