HOT SPRINGS -- Last Samurai graced Arkansas horse owner Willis Horton's golden years. At age 5, he's the defending champion of two graded stakes at Oaklawn Racing Casino Resort.
Malibu Moon's son seeks his second Grade III title of the meeting in today's $500,000 Essex Handicap. Ten older horses entered the 1 1/16-mile prep for the Grade II $1 million Oaklawn Handicap on April 22 with Last Samurai winning that 9-furlong race by 4 lengths last year. More recently, the chestnut horse notched a 1 1/2-lengths score in the Grade III $600,000 Razorback Handicap on Feb. 18, racing once in Florida after a neck second in Oaklawn's 9-furlong Tinsel in December.
Hall of Famer D. Wayne Lukas took over Horton's stable after the Marshall resident died of pneumonia last October at age 82. Both active and relevant at 87 despite an early-season rib injury in training at Oaklawn, Lukas won the Grade II Azeri last weekend with the filly Secret Oath in her 4-year-old debut.
The Essex field tries to wrest the race title away from 10-year-old Rated R Superstar, whom Oaklawn owner Danny Caldwell claimed for $50,000 at Oaklawn two years ago. A graded winner for Ken McPeek early in his career, Kodiak Kowboy's son won the 2019 Essex for trainer Cippy Contreras before repeating last year for Federico Villafranco.
No match for Ginobili and Last Samurai in Oaklawn stakes this season, Rated R Superstar, with enough pace, may be a factor in this third start of the year. He is defending champion also of two stakes at Remington Park in Oklahoma City.
The Essex drew last-out track winners Silver Prospector, Call Me Fast (seeking his third straight triumph) and Keystone Field, the latter getting the red-hot pairing of trainer Mike Maker and jockey Isaac Castillo. Silver Prospector, the 2020 Grade III Southwest winner for Steve Asmussen, beat stablemate and 2022 Grade I Arkansas Derby winner Super Stock in an allowance-optional claimer here in the mud Feb. 11.
The 6-year-old Silver Prospector keeps Ricardo Santana Jr., having won the Grade III Steve Sexton Memorial mile last May at Lone Star Park.
McPeek's Classic Causeway won the Grade I Belmont Derby on turf last July after two graded wins at Tampa Bay Downs, placing 11th of 20 in Rich Strike's Kentucky Derby. Obviously potent on dirt or grass, Giant's Causeway has been training at Fair Grounds for his first start since October. Flavien Prat rides under 119 pounds.
Two other Essex starters with Kentucky Derby experience are local winner Necker Island and first-time Oaklawn starter Tawny Port. Necker Island, by Hard Spun and trained by Chris Hartman, placed ninth in the 2020 Derby, moved to September because of the covid pandemic.
Tawny Port, under regular scheduling, won the Grade III Lexington last year at Keeneland before running seventh on Derby Day at Churchill Downs. Brad Cox, whose horses command respect in any spot, has worked Tawny Port, by American Pharoah sire Pioneerof the Nile, at his New Orleans winter base, assigning Rafael Bejarano the mount for its second start of the year.
Vittorio, owned by Kaleem Shah of Bayern fame, makes his Oaklawn debut for trainer Bill Mott on Hall of Fame day at the track. Ghostzapper's 5-year-son, at 3-1, is well respected in the morning line before his first stakes race, getting Martin Garcia in the saddle.
Post time for the Essex, ninth of 10 races on the card, is 4:54 p.m.