HOT SPRINGS -- Trainer D. Wayne Lukas gets around slower these days, walking with a cane, at 87, but his horses still run fast.
Willis Horton, living until 82 before pneumonia took the Arkansan last fall, would be having some good times with Lukas, one octogenarian to another. With Lukas training two champions for Horton in the past decade, the Marshall horseman has the unofficial horse of the meeting at Oaklawn Racing Casino Resort.
Before an estimated crowd of 37,500, Last Samurai scored his second graded victory of the season and third in two years at Oaklawn in Saturday's 75th running of the Grade III $500,000 Essex Handicap. Last-out winner of the Grade III Razorback Handicap, the 4-year-old is poised for a whirlwind season finale in the Grade II $1 million Oaklawn Handicap April 15, a nine-furlong race he won by four lengths last year.
Malibu Moon's son, produced by First Samurai mare Lady Samurai, won by one length over the game Classic Causeway, who in his first start since October set the early splits and did everything but close the deal. Forza Di Oro and Vittorio, both prominent early, settled for third and fourth spots in the nine-horse field.
A 48.28 opening half-mile cooked 10-year-old defending race winner Rated R Superstar, who requires a scalding pace in front. Danny Caldwell's warrior, a two-time Essex winner, finished eighth at 27-1.
Tawny Port, who like Forza Di Oro campaigns for trainer Brad Cox, ran fifth in his 4-year-old debut and another past Kentucky Derby runner, 6-year-old Necker Island, was ninth for trainer Chris Hartman, who won the Grade III $200,000 Whitmore with Tejano Twist one race earlier.
Leading jockey Cristian Torres had Last Samurai no worse than fourth through the fast-rated 1 1/16 miles in 1:43.17, getting up by one length. The winner paid $4, $2.80 and $2.40.
"He's a horse that it takes a long time to start going, but I was in the perfect spot today," said Torres, breaking from post nine after a late scratch. "I was where I wanted to be. Right when I hit the half-mile pole, I started asking him because I know he takes a while. When he turned for home, he just exploded. He finished up really well."
Lukas won his second graded title of the month a week after 4-year-old filly Secret Oath took the Grade II Azeri. She ran third in last year's Grade I Arkansas Derby, better than Last Samurai against Super Stock in the 2022 race.
"I actually felt that the race was smoother and more professional today than the last one," Lukas said.
"He got a beautiful ride from Cristian. I was worried about the 10 hole, frankly, when we drew that. Getting into that first turn from the 10 hole, the race is usually won or lost right there. When he dropped in nicely like that and showed a little speed, I thought that we had a great chance. It was a very smooth run. I don't think it took that much out of him for his next run."
A six-time winner from 24 starts for more than $1.9 million in earnings, Last Samurai topped $1 million at Oaklawn in the Feb. 18 Razorback. He started the meeting a neck second in the Dec. 17 Tinsel at nine furlongs, then fourth at 51-1 odds in a Grade I Gulfstream Park race Jan. 28. Two half-mile maintenance works helped the chestnut hold his form after the Razorback, now getting a longer break before the Oaklawn.